OLYMPIA – A delegation of more than 80 Spokane-area folks arrived here last week with their annual “agenda” – some might call it a wish list – of things the Legislature could do to make life better for the state in general and the center of the Inland Empire in particular.
This annual trek to the capital, sponsored by Greater Spokane Incorporated, herds well-briefed leaders of business, political, education and civic groups through the marbled rooms and committee rooms and is the envy of many other cities and counties around Washington. It has prompted the sincerest form of flattery, imitation, from other communities, but many legislators still say Spokane’s full-court-press lobbying remains the best.
At least that’s what some tell members of the Spokane throng. Others offer recollections of their last visit to the city or Spokane Valley, or some other anecdote to show they are all paisans.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, praised the new Spokane medical school building after coming out to the official opening last month. He was so complimentary that several people said it might be a good idea to invite Chopp over more often to see other examples of state largesse in hopes of keeping the money flowing.
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, commiserated on the need to finish the north-south freeway by reminiscing about his days as a young truck driver some 30 years ago, hauling a load to Addy and back using Division Street and U.S. Highway 395.
Except for a few particularly contentious days in the Legislature, that trip “was one of the longest days of my life,” Orcutt said, prompting the audience to nod in agreement.
Gov. Jay Inslee suggested the state’s landing of factories for a new Boeing jetliner is a reason to find money for the freeway “so we can expand Boeing in Spokane County,” a line that also generated nods.
A freeway mention was probably safer for Inslee than last year’s promise to come to Spokane with a team to play in Hoopfest. The governor’s basketball spirit is always willing, but when tournament weekend rolled around in late June the Legislature was in its second special session and he couldn’t keep that promise.
The north-south freeway, aka the North Spokane Corridor, aka the Never Ending Road Project, is the biggest item on the 2014 wish list. The delegation was looking for some $750 million to finish the thing once and for all; it was told in a series of briefings not to get its collective hopes up. Not because finishing the freeway would mean politicians of both parties would need new jokes about Spokane traffic but because it would have to be part of a multibillion-dollar transportation package.
Prognosis for “the package” is caught in a tug-of-war between the House, which passed an $8 billion proposal last year, and the Senate, which is still trying to produce one.
Senate Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, told the group he thought Inslee should gather up both chambers’ leaders and their transportation committees’ top dogs one weekend, lock them in the governor’s conference room, and not let them out until they had an agreement. He didn’t say which weekend, but presumably not next weekend, lest he face a mutiny from his Super Bowl-happy cohorts.
Inslee suggested Tom and the Republicans who make up the vast majority of the Majority Coalition Caucus come up with a written plan and the names of 25 senators willing to vote for it, and “I’ll take it over to the House” to start negotiations.
If nothing else this year, members of the GSI delegation learned an important lesson of Olympia, that politicians can talk around an issue and past each other.
Rich Hadley, GSI chief executive officer who is retiring this year, is the spark plug that makes these yearly trips happen. He admitted expectations for his last trek were low. It’s a short session. There’s a little extra money in the revenue pipeline but not enough for big initiatives. What extra money exists might be channeled into public schools to satisfy the state Supreme Court.
Unlike some past years where the group was united behind a large project like the new med school building, this trip was more about preventing subtractions than finding additions, he said.
Because this is a shorter, 60-day session, more groups swarm the Capitol on any given day than during a regular 105-day session. On Thursday, the Spokane delegation pounded the sidewalks and hiked the granite stairs with a contingent of county officials and some Harley-riding, black leather-wearing folks from A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.
Hard to tell them apart from the first group; from the second, not so much.