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Lawmakers choosing between gimmicks, people

What’s a majority leader to do when she no longer leads a majority?

Spokane’s Lisa Brown is heading into the special session of the Legislature without what Democrats have come to take for granted: the most votes. Since three Senate Democrats crossed over to side with the GOP on a budget, Majority Leader Brown and Senate Democrats are bargaining suddenly from a weaker position. She says that budget talks will have to focus on places where Republicans and Democrats can find agreement. She’s not, she says, trying to bring the strays back to the herd.

It sounds, strategically, like what a minority leader has to do. Persuade and yield. Seek the middle ground. With two competing budgets and an uncertain balance of power, the only question is what the draw will look like.

Still, Brown argues that the recent narrative about the “historic, unprecedented” coup in Olympia has been overstated. It’s not so unheard of, she said. It’s just that the Democratic majority has been so large in recent years that there wasn’t much power in the crossover vote.

Brown says that in her 20 years in the Capitol, the crossover has been deployed with some frequency.

She recalls when Jim West was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means committee in 1997. “His budget failed on the Senate floor, with his members defecting,” she said.

Similarly, she recalls GOP senators voting in favor of budgets that she wrote in 2001.

“One of them was Bob McCaslin,” she said, referring to the late Spokane Valley conservative.

But it was surprising and distressing when the three D’s – Jim Kastama, Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom – crossed over, she said. They shared the interest of a lot of Republicans in “reform” this session – whether it’s pension reform, budgetary reform, school reform. Reform is one of those nice ways of putting things that might not sound so nice if you talked about them more specifically. However wise or unwise these proposals are, it’s impossible to be against reform, right? It’s like being against a “sustainable” budget – a rhetorical reframing of the debate away from the human impact.

Brown said she thought she’d been working productively with the three D’s on their concerns when they defected.

“I am disappointed that I was working with my more moderate members on what had been presented to me as what they needed to see,” she said. “I was working with them on passing those bills. At no time did they say, ‘Oh by the way, we’re giving our budget votes to Sen. Zarelli,’ ” the GOP’s budget writer.

That’s what they did, of course. Now lawmakers are in special session, trying to resolve the differences between two budgets: the budget that passed the House and is favored, more or less, by Senate Democrats, and the one that passed the Senate. The latter has been the subject of a great deal of obfuscation, primarily around the subject of education; the GOP claims, not credibly, to be putting more money toward education than the Democrats.

They oppose an accounting move included in the Democrats’ proposals – pushing forward a school payment of $322 million into next fiscal year. They oppose it so much they count it as a cut – which is a creative way for them to arrive at the claim that they would spend more on education than the Democrats, whose budgets avoid education cuts.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, told me this week that this accounting trick might not be so bad – might not be such a crucial place to make a stand – if it didn’t follow years and years of such one-time budget fixes, which illustrate a failure to create a sustainable budget. Fighting that problem is, apparently, a bigger priority than education.

Republicans have also proposed skipping a $147 million payment into the pension fund – something Baumgartner justifies because it’s part of an overall package that would reduce early retirements and other pension benefits that would save money in the long run.

“All of the budgets thus far have done something that either skips a payment or pushes some expense into the future,” Brown said. “Every budget that was proposed did that.”

At this point, though, the choice is not between gimmicks and sustainability, or gimmicks and fiscal purity, or gimmicks and reform.

It’s between gimmicks and people.

When you cut services to the mentally ill, the issues surrounding mental illness do not vanish. Ask a cop where untreated mentally ill people end up.

“Some of these cuts in the social safety net side are just about guaranteed to cost us money down the road on the public safety side,” Brown said.

Brown figures there’s about $200 million in the hardest decisions to make – an amount somewhere between the two sides’ accounting tricks. After the last few years, dreams of easy cuts are over. And there is – apart from a couple of proposed closures of modest loopholes – no realistic talk of anything but cuts.

“It’s unfortunate that with all the talk of reform, we’re still not talking about reform on the revenue side of the equation,” Brown said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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