OLYMPIA – It always astounds me how quickly the state capital becomes a ghost town when a legislative session ends.
On Sunday, lobbyists were still swarming the Senate and House doors. Lawmakers rushed toward midnight in a mad scramble of last-minute deals, deadlocks and dead bills.
The next morning, the place was silent as a tomb. Most lawmakers and many staffers quickly fled, only too happy to see Olympia in their rearview mirrors. The coffee makers were packed up, the pizza boxes hauled off and a large mobile shredding truck went to work, ingesting tens of thousands of pages of bills, amendments and reports.
So it’s probably a good time to see how some people and issues fared in Olympia this year.
Lisa Brown: It was a very tough year for Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. In the face of bleak budget realities, Brown watched as key priorities – a family medical leave stipend, a low-income tax rebate – were again delayed. She fought hard for renewable-power reforms that died at the last minute. And a $200,000 budget item to help pay for Spokane’s figure-skating bid became a political piñata. It was nowhere to be found in the final budget.
Brown was one of very few lawmakers willing to publicly discuss the merits of tax hikes. She floated the idea of a state income tax on high earners, saying it would ease the tax burden on the poor.
But few lawmakers embraced the plan, which Gov. Chris Gregoire publicly panned. In the end, Brown reluctantly backed a budget that included deep cuts to adult day care, thousands fewer people with health coverage and other major cuts.
Still, Brown – who has mulled running for governor in 2012 – held her caucus together in what was probably the most difficult year of their legislative careers. And the state building budget includes tens of millions of dollars for Spokane-area projects.
Same-sex couples: Just a few years ago, bills involving gay rights or same-sex couples were guaranteed to spark hours-long floor fights, stacks of amendments and bitter debate. I vividly remember one state senator, now deceased, standing on the Senate floor and holding up a large photograph of his daughter and announcing that he’d turned his back on her because she was a lesbian.
“That’s called tough love,” he said.
Although there are still some high emotions on both sides, the issue no longer seems like quite the tinderbox it once was. Over the past couple of years, more than 5,000 couples, many of them same-sex couples, have signed up for the state’s domestic partners registry. And lawmakers this year easily passed an “everything but marriage” bill this year that grants those partners virtually all the rights and responsibilities of spouses.
Social conservatives crowded hearings to testify against it this year, and thousands of people rallied on the Capitol steps against same-sex marriage. Some of those opponents are now trying to run a ballot measure to overturn the law, which they say is de facto gay marriage. But more than twice as many showed up to protest when the topic was taxes.
For years, Republicans and conservative rural Democrats could band together to stop gay rights bills. This year, the vote on “everything but marriage” – although largely along party lines – wasn’t even close.
Republicans: The GOP had a surprisingly good year, although they’d probably disagree. Far outnumbered in both the House and Senate, Republicans were nonetheless able to repeatedly band together with business-oriented or rural Democrats on key bills. With procedural moves, they also managed to stymie even minor tax increases.
Among their victories: A bill to launch an ambitious state cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases, despite being backed by the governor, was amended until it was little more than a study. Talk of a vehicle-miles-traveled tax was quickly tabled, and a bill to reduce levy equalization for poor and often rural schools collapsed in a last-minute foul-up over a couple of final budget bills.
“We dodged some bullets,” said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. Republicans were unhappy, however, that budget reforms didn’t go deeper.
Environmental groups: Environmentalists had a tough year in Olympia. They fought hard for the cap-and-trade bill, which was much watered down. A bill to discourage use of plastic shopping bags never even made it out of committee.
Health care and the social safety net: Both had a pretty bad year. Hospitals, nursing homes and other health care programs will lose millions of dollars in state reimbursements. Hours for state-paid in-home health aides were cut back. Adult day care was deeply cut.
Lawmakers saved a program that provides $339-a-month stipends and health coverage to unemployable people, while still trimming that medical coverage by millions of dollars. And the state’s Basic Health Plan – which already has an 18,000-person waiting list – will be reduced by 40,000 people.
Hospitals and health groups tried to convince lawmakers to instead ask voters to OK a $1.1 billion sales tax increase for the next three years. Lawmakers, uneasy over lukewarm polling on the issue, let it die.
Organized labor: Labor had a pretty rough year. The Service Employees International Union, which last year backed an initiative requiring more paid training for some home care workers, watched in dismay as lawmakers delayed most of the changes.
The top priority for many unions – banning mandatory anti-union meetings at work – was torpedoed when lawmakers got a union strategy memo vowing “not one dime” more from labor unless the bill passed. Legislative leaders and the governor immediately killed the bill and called the State Patrol.
The e-mail was no crime, the patrol quickly ruled. But the bill stayed dead.
Labor – and people without jobs – scored a win early in the session, when lawmakers temporarily boosted unemployment benefits $45 a week. But union attempts to increase benefits over the long term failed.
Business: A mixed year, with a big win at the very end. Republicans argue that lawmakers did little for small business. But Olympia approved millions of dollars in additional fees that car dealers can charge customers. At the urging of the state’s home-building industry, lawmakers again rejected stronger homeowner protections against shoddy construction.
Business’s biggest win came in the final day of the legislative session, when lawmakers agreed to reduce unemployment taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars. The bill was backed by the governor, who’d vowed not to let lawmakers go home until they’d passed it.
Schools: School officials and teachers will likely disagree with this assessment, but it could have been worse.
True, teachers will not get hundreds of millions of dollars in voter-approved cost-of-living increases they expected. And school districts will not get hundreds of millions more they were counting on for teacher training and smaller class sizes. All told, there will be $1.1 billion less than expected for education over the next two years.
But this was not a normal budget. Some state agencies are now facing budget cuts of more than 20 percent. Colleges are facing about 7 percent cuts – even after raising tuition nearly 30 percent over the next two years. Budget writers say that the net cut to school districts, after factoring in new federal stimulus dollars, averages about 2.6 percent.
Education “was the least-cut of all programs,” Gregoire said Tuesday, “and that’s as it should be.”
The big question mark for schools is whether lawmakers will be able to make good on a multi-billion-dollar promise they made this year. They voted to phase in a dramatic overhaul of school funding over the next decade. If it works as planned, schools will see far more dollars than they do today. But the teachers union and others have dismissed the move as an empty promise, since lawmakers have not yet found a way to come up with those dollars.
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