It’s Do or Die Time for Inslee – Special Session Offers Chance for Reset
OLYMPIA, May 2.—After a regular legislative session that left Washington’s new governor with little to celebrate, Gov. Jay Inslee appears to be signaling that there will be a new fellow in the mansion when lawmakers return to town May 13 – one who actually has some influence on the legislative process. His first 102 days? That’s not something he really wants to talk about, and maybe with good reason.
The upcoming special session offers a second chance for Washington’s new governor, who can claim only one partial victory during his first regular legislative session — on a climate-change bill that was significantly altered during legislative debate and certainly isn’t the bold environmental move that has been advertised. Some of his failures can probably be chalked up to the fact that the members of the Republican-leaning Majority Coalition in the Senate don’t comprise a Jay Inslee fan club. But Inslee’s own Democrats didn’t help much, either, when they dealt him a huge defeat on gun control. And much of the dismal record of Inslee’s first 102 days can be laid at his own two feet: He never presented much of an agenda, didn’t bother writing a budget, appeared to reverse himself on a no-new-tax promise, and learned that when there is a vacuum at the top, the Legislature is always willing to fill it.
Says state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, “I’ve served under Gardner, Locke, Lowry, Gregoire, and now Inslee – so this would be the fifth governor, right? And I have to say he has been the least prepared to start his first session.”
Here’s the thing. In the last week or so before he sent lawmakers home Sunday night, the governor seemed to be hinting, more or less, that there’s going to be a New Inslee when business resumes. One who demands action on a set of highly partisan and controversial bills. One who tosses the normal processes and procedures of the Legislature to the winds in a desperate scramble to catch up. One who advances the ball for his party as Democrats demand some sort of a big tax increase this year. And while Inslee took a big risk in giving lawmakers a two-week break, at least if history tells us anything about these matters, the long layoff also gives him a chance for a much-needed reset. Let’s just say that by the end of Inslee’s first regular legislative session, people were beginning to notice.
No Bold Agenda
Inslee, a former congressman elected by the narrowest of margins last fall on a platform of green-energy promotion, did his best, during the final week of session, to duck questions about his record so far. As always, the former hoops standout used a basketball analogy. “I think I am succeeding today in focusing on my job, which is not to do post-game analysis,” he told reporters. “This is maybe halfway through the fourth quarter. I’m thinking about my next shot and finishing this game with success, not what happened in the first quarter. So I would withhold that conversation until we are done.”
You can’t blame him for that. Although the public is fond of talking about a new executive’s first 100 days – the period when a new president is expected to roll out his bold new agenda to reshape the country – for a Washington governor, it is really the first 102 days that count. That’s because Washington always swears in a new governor on third day of a 105-day legislative session. And in those 102 days Inslee didn’t make a lot of baskets. Quips state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, “I’d give him an A – for absent.”
For one thing, there was no bold agenda. It wasn’t until Feb. 13, a month into session, that Inslee unveiled his jobs plan. He spent much of his 2012 campaign talking about a “75-point plan” that would stimulate green and high-tech industry, and while he never quite came out and said he would create enough jobs to avoid a tax increase, his campaign never bothered correcting the press when it was reported that way, seemingly hundreds and hundreds of times. That made the actual proposal a bit of a stunner. Inslee basically endorsed a couple of major initiatives already underway in the Legislature — a transportation tax package for roads and transit, and an expansion of Medicaid programs under the federal Affordable Care Act. But in terms of actual new ideas, he had only a few – a tradable tax credit for new and startup businesses, new spending for green-energy research and more money for K-12 and college programs in science, technology, engineering and math. His $122 million in new proposals weren’t enough to make much of a dent in the state’s economic picture, though Inslee promised he’d have more later, when it came time to negotiate a budget. Maybe the most telling thing is that it was all so vague that his loyal opposition in the Legislature found nothing to criticize. Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, leader of the Senate Majority Coalition, offered drily, “Most of it was at a pretty high level.”
Drops Ball on Budget
Also notable was Inslee’s failure to present a budget. That is a new governor’s right, and it is typical to see a fully fleshed-out proposal sometime within the first 30 days of a new administration – sort of a first draft for the budget the Legislature eventually adopts. Yet Inslee never presented a budget bill. Instead, on March 28, he presented a much-less-specific list of “spending priorities” – a little better than a back-of-the-envelope proposal, but one that left the heavy lifting to the Legislature.
Key thing about Inslee’s checklist was that it contained $1.2 billion in tax increases – the only way, he said, to pay the freight for a Supreme Court decision requiring at least $1 billion or so in new spending for K-12 schools. And for all the furor about whether Inslee was breaking a campaign promise, it is more interesting to note that in his tax plan there wasn’t a new idea anywhere: All had been presented, debated and for the most part rejected in previous legislative sessions, or else they were part of the lame-duck budget proposal offered by outgoing Gov. Christine Gregoire last December. House Democrats adopted bits and pieces, but for the most part found a different list of tax exemptions to whack.
Meanwhile, the Senate dribbled circles around Inslee. The Majority Coalition came up with a budget that financed K-12 education without a tax increase – an imperfect proposal, as Democrats and budget staff have pointed out math problems here and there, and one that likely will require a few compromises. But during debate on that Senate plan, in a little-noticed bit of legislative byplay, the chamber dealt Inslee a major defeat. Despite his back-room pleas, Inslee was unable to convince his fellow Democrats to say no. Insiders say he may have managed to sway as many as four votes, but when the budget came to the floor there were nine Democrats who voted with the majority, and the measure passed 30-19.
Legislative Initiatives are a Flop
Inslee came up a big loser on policy bills. One might argue that his climate-change legislation was an exception – that bill actually passed. But it was a bit loosey-goosey to begin with, and along the way there were changes in the Legislature that made it even more so. Instead of setting up a task force to recommend new environmental measures, the law launches a panel that will study whether the state can do any good. “I think it is probably the most misunderstood bill in Olympia this year,” says Senate Energy and Environment Chairman Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who brokered the deal. “This bill isn’t necessarily about how we raise taxes, it is about what is the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions. I think Jay Inslee thinks it is a bill about cap and trade or a carbon tax, but that’s not what the bill does.”
Inslee’s most notable loss was on a gun-control measure that would have required gun-show background checks. Democratic leaders halted action in the House for an astounding day and a half as Inslee tried to round up votes, but the governor was unable to find 50 supporters among the Democrats’ 55-member majority, and the bill never came up for a vote on the floor. In a curious bit of misdirection, Inslee has taken to criticizing the Senate for its failure to allow a vote on a different gun-control bill, one that actually did make it out of the House. That one strips gun-ownership rights from those who have court-issued restraining orders against them.
Indeed, Inslee is trying to frame things in an entirely different light. He is blaming Senate leaders for refusing to bring bills to the floor that might win a majority vote, a common lament in the legislative arena among those who are on the losing side. Inslee cites the second gun-control bill, not the first. There’s the reproductive parity act, a measure favored by abortion-rights activists that would require insurance companies to pay for abortion. There’s the state Dream Act, a measure that would extend college financial aid to the children of illegal immigrants. “We need the will of the legislators to be expressed,” he said. “That means they have to be given the chance to vote.”
And in the special session coming up, he says he’s going to do something about it.
Just One More Chance
This is where things get mighty interesting. There are plenty of ways to read between the lines and they add up to aggressive play by Inslee for a second chance. In the last week of the legislative session, Inslee said he planned to play a more active role in the upcoming budget talks than his predecessors in advancing his party’s position – no arbitrator role for him. He demanded action on the rather partisan bills the Senate already had considered and rejected. He started making a major push for a transportation tax, and insisted that it contain money for a highly controversial bridge project at Vancouver – a plan that faces stiff opposition in the Senate. And in the most striking move of all, he took up the crowd-pleasing cause of a crackdown on drunk driving – despite the fact that deadlines for the introduction of legislation came and went long ago. It’s as if he’s trying to turn back the clock, marvels state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn. “It’s like we’re being called back into a brand-new full session – all the items that were important to the governor that didn’t make it out of our regular session are back on the table.”
Insiders might also note a few political subtleties in the announcement regarding the upcoming special session. Inslee’s proclamation calling the session is open-ended – there is no attempt to limit the issues that might be considered when lawmakers return. House Democrats chose not to make any statements Sunday night about Inslee’s decision, saying the governor is speaking for them – and thus signaled that they are willing to let him lead. And then there’s the decision about timing: Inslee’s decision to start the overtime session for May 13 gives lawmakers a two-week break and risks the prospect that lawmakers won’t finish the job and pass a budget by June 30. But it also means the special session won’t seem so much a continuation of a regular session in which the Legislature towered over the governor.
Don’t count Inslee out, Democrats say – he may have been slow to start, but there is plenty of time for him to show his strengths.
Says Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray, “We know not how this story will end, that is for sure.”