OLYMPIA – For years, Democrats in the Statehouse have been telling friends, allies and constituents that if they ran the show, things would be done a lot differently.
Now’s their chance to prove it.
After years of wrestling Republicans for control of state government, Democrats have won a political trifecta: They have a majority in the Senate, a majority in the House of Representatives, and – it seems – the governor’s mansion. After a long string of gridlock and standoffs and staredowns with Republicans in recent years, Democrats are in charge.
What’s that likely to mean? Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, says she and other Democrats will focus on three key things: good schools, good jobs and health care for as many people as possible.
“Yes, it’s going to be a difficult year, but it’s going to be a watershed year,” predicted Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. “We’re going to be pointing the direction.”
Republicans worry about the specifics of what Democrats will do.
“They (Democrats) have had their hands on the steering wheel and the gas, but we’ve had our foot on the brake,” said Rep. Larry Crouse, R-Spokane Valley. “If we lose that brake, they’ll drive as fast as they want wherever they want.”
The Democrats take control, however, at a difficult time.
On Tuesday, just one day after new lawmakers are sworn in, Republicans and Democrats expect to clash over an issue that’s been brewing for more than two months: Who is the rightful governor of Washington?
Some Republicans and at least one Democrat want to delay ratifying the results of the third tally, which Gov.-Elect Christine Gregoire won by 129 votes. Republican leaders maintain that the election was so flawed that there’s no way to be sure who won. Republican Party candidate Dino Rossi wants a “re-vote,” in hopes of getting a more decisive win.
“We don’t know who won – and never will,” said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger.
Democrats argue that the state Constitution doesn’t allow a do-over. If Democrats hold together, they have the votes to easily slap down any call for a re-vote.
Republicans opened up a second front in the battle Friday, vowing to file suit in Chelan County Superior Court, asking for a revote.
Even if Republicans’ legislative and court fights fail, Gregoire and some legislative leaders acknowledge that it will take time to heal the wounds from the state’s most expensive and longest gubernatorial election.
“I know it’s an emotional time, a tough time,” Gregoire said Friday. But in the end, she said, the governor and lawmakers are public servants and owe it to Washingtonians to get on with the business of government.
Gregoire feels that Washington’s election system has been unfairly tarnished by “high-pitched rhetoric” from Republicans. The three tallies put the system under a microscope, she said, and overall, it performed very well.
“The anger is highly unfortunate, and we have got to set it aside,” she said. “It’s my job to help the state of Washington heal.”
Then there’s the state budget.
Over the next two years, the state – once again – is expecting the amount of taxes and other revenue to be $1.6 billion less than what it would cost to maintain the current level of state services and programs.
Why? It’s not that the economy’s doing badly – it’s actually growing, albeit slowly. State coffers are expected to grow nearly 7 percent over the next two years.
The problem is that the cost of many of the things the state buys – like prescription drugs for poor children, or health insurance for teachers and state workers – is rising much faster.
The cost of Washington’s Medicaid program, for example, is expected to increase nearly 19 percent over two years. About a third of that is due to increasing numbers of people who qualify for the health-care program. Two-thirds of the cost comes from rising health care costs.
“You can see the challenge that faces us,” said Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, the veteran House budget writer.
Faced with a checking account too small to cover the bills, government has three options. It can cut services, raise taxes, or both.
Do both, Gov. Gary Locke suggested in December, releasing his final budget proposal before leaving office. He proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in service cuts, as well as $504 million in new “sin taxes” on beer, wine, liquor and soda pop. A no-new-taxes budget, he said, would have cut too deeply into schools, colleges, health care for the poor, and services for the elderly.
Republicans have repeatedly said that the state can meet the challenge with cuts. Tax increases, they argue, will hurt the economy and be hard to un-do.
“The decisions made in the next two years,” said Chandler, “are choices we’re going to live with for a long time, a decade or more.”
Closely watching those decisions will be many longtime Democratic allies and supporters, some of whom have chafed under Republican-led budget cuts. Many teachers, for example, watched in anger as Locke and lawmakers “suspended” Initiatives 728 and 732, which were supposed to steer hundreds of millions of dollars into teacher cost-of-living increases and to hire more teachers so class sizes would decrease.
Most state workers haven’t had a cost-of-living increase in several years.
“It seems to me it’s time to pony up,” said Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. The legislature will have to decide whether to approve a new contract giving state workers a 4.8 percent raise over the next two years.
Republicans are more uncertain about the increases. Senate Minority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, said that the state employee increases total about $500 million – almost exactly as much as Locke proposed in new taxes.
“It’s difficult to tell state employees ‘no,’ but we also have to look at where that money comes from,” Finkbeiner said.
When asked about taxes on the campaign trail, Gregoire used the same line over and over: “Now is not the time to talk about raising taxes.”
That begs the question, though, of when is the time? She said last week that she, like Locke, intends to make a budget proposal by late February that includes no new taxes. But she left open the possibility that she may, like Locke, then come out with a budget that includes new taxes.
“I will not compromise our infrastructure, our children, our most vulnerable, our seniors, our public safety,” she said. To Republicans, that sounds like a drum roll for a tax hike. They say the state budget must be “sustainable,” instead of being short year after year.
Brown says it’s too early to say if Democrats will call for new taxes. But, she added, “it would be unacceptable to let the social safety net be shredded any further.”
Legislative power has also shifted this year as a result of the elections. Except for Brown, most of the Democrats’ power players – committee chairs and legislative leaders – are from Puget Sound.
On the Republican side, power has shifted from Eastern to Central Washington. The top House Republican – Chandler – is from Granger. His deputy, Mike Armstrong, is from Wenatchee. Other Republican leaders hail from Selah, Sunnyside, Wenatchee and Ephrata.
Much of the Democrats’ success this year depends on how well they can hold their members together as a voting bloc. Both parties are talking about having a “philosophical majority” of both parties working together.
“Look across the state of Washington and join me in the middle,” Gregoire said last week when asked what her message to lawmakers will be when she’s sworn in Jan. 12.
In an Olympia tradition, legislative leaders were asked at a recent forum for pop-culture themes for the upcoming legislative session.
Brown had three.
She compared the governor’s election to a TV reality show: “The Amazing Race.”
The budget, she said, is like the film “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
And the budget debates during the 105-day session, she said, are likely to call to mind an old Joni Mitchell song, the refrain to which is: “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”
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