OLYMPIA, April 25.—While the state House staged a lengthy debate Wednesday on a $900 million tax bill that staked out the Democratic position on the budget, the real drama was playing out in the Capitol’s conference rooms. Gov. Jay Inslee declared that the Legislature must swallow a set of highly partisan policy bills in addition to any deal it works out on the budget – and Republicans choked.
The Democratic governor handed the Legislature a must-do list that includes controversial legislation on gun control, abortion, drunk driving, and college financial aid for the children of illegal immigrants. He also wants a transportation-tax package he says must include funding for the politicized Columbia River Crossing in Vancouver. Lawmakers can’t go home without them, he told reporters at a news conference Wednesday. And while it is common for governors to demand action from a reluctant Legislature, the Republicans who will play a decisive role in the upcoming budget talks say communication with the governor’s office has been so poor this session that they worry it is an ultimatum.
The governor has been so disengaged from the budget negotiations on the third floor of the Capitol Building that he is throwing the legislative process in doubt, the lawmakers complain. Inslee has the ultimate power – the veto pen. And unlike his predecessor in office, they say Washington’s new governor has shown little interest in brokering a compromise between the House and Senate over the budget, arguably the most important bill of all. “The concern is that we could all get together and like what we are doing, and then he could put the nix on it,” said state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee.
The governor’s must-do list includes bills that already have been considered and rejected during the not-altogether-abnormal partisan byplay in the current legislative session, now in the 102nd of 105 days, and which seems certain to go into overtime. But even Democrats have had trouble embracing some of the governor’s positions. Despite their 55-member majority in the House, they were unable to muster the votes for the gun-control bill earlier in the session — even after a remarkable arm-twisting effort by the governor that stopped action for a day and a half. Meanwhile, Inslee injected the drunk-driving issue into the legislative session just last week, long after legislative deadlines had passed for the consideration of bills. That legislation appears to be in trouble in the Democrat-controlled House as well. “I think he still thinks he is in Congress,” said House Republican Caucus Chair Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.
Certainly there is a big gulf between the House and Senate on the budget. Democrats in the House are bent on a tax increase and the Republican-leaning Senate wants nothing to do with it. But the gulf between the second and third floors of the Capitol building may be even larger. One sure indicator: Republicans said Wednesday at a news conference that Inslee leaves them longing for the good old days of Gov. Christine Gregoire.
Governor Makes Demands
At his news conference Wednesday, Inslee said the bills are what Washington demands. “These are things that Washingtonians need action from their legislators on this year, and I believe it is my responsibility to do everything humanly possible to get action on all these fronts this year. And we’re going to make the right decisions to do that.”
The statement triggered an uproar in Republican ranks. Though it might be seen as an indirect rebuke of the Democrats who have balked in the House, the real target of Inslee’s message was the Republicans who dominate the Majority Coalition in the state Senate. That’s where the partisan Democratic bills have gone to die. As far as the Majority Caucus is concerned those debates are over and done with.
Certainly you can expect some sort of dealmaking to take place as a budget agreement nears, Republicans say. But Inslee just isn’t playing the role of above-it-all arbitrator that one expects from a governor – particularly important in a year like this one. Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said lawmakers have come to expect the governor to play a leadership role, and he just isn’t playing it. All legislators really can do is work out a budget deal and hope for the best. “It is our job to present a unified budget to the governor. He can veto it or he can accept it. If he chooses not to help us get to a balanced budget, that is his choice. Our former governor was very helpful in doing that. If he doesn’t want to help us get to solutions, so be it. I can’t speak for him. I’m just telling you what the previous governor did at this stage of the session.”
Inslee’s Must-Do List
Inslee joked that he was elected governor and not dictator, “and I understand that distinction.” And he stopped short of threatening a budget veto if he doesn’t get his way. But he said the session’s resolution isn’t just about the budget. “What I would stress is that this is not just a budgetary exercise. There are policy issues that are very much in play.”
The governor’s must-do list includes the Reproductive Parity Act, a measure that would require insurance companies to cover abortion, and the Dream Act, the college financial aid measure. On gun control, Inslee says he wants the background-check bill that Democrats failed to pass in the House as well as a bill that would strip gun-ownership rights from those under restraining orders in domestic violence cases. That one made it through the House, but like the abortion measure and the Dream Act, did not get a vote in the Senate.
“The will of the legislators needs to be able to be expressed,” he said. “That means they have to be given the chance to vote. Right now they haven’t been able to vote in one of our chambers on some of the issues that have huge support of the Washington people, including privacy of women on individual decisions. And we need to see some votes to allow the will of the people and legislators be expressed.”
Inslee said he will insist on legislation he announced just last week that would dramatically stiffen penalties for those who are convicted of drunk driving as well as for those who are accused of the offense, prior to trial. The effort has been lent impetus by recent DWI deaths in the greater Seattle area involving those who apparently ignored existing laws. That legislation appears to be stalled in the Democratic House, where a scheduled vote Wednesday was delayed – a sure sign that support is faltering. Inslee said he would like the Legislature to finish the job by the regular session’s scheduled adjournment on Sunday — lightspeed for lawmakers. “Impaired drivers are almost every bit as dangerous as gun violence,” Inslee said. “We need to deal with that issue and I am dedicated to getting that done this year.”
Inslee also said he wants the Legislature to pass a transportation-tax bill that is likely to receive a vote soon on the House floor, raising gas taxes by some 10 to 13 cents. That proposal is proving a hard sell in the Legislature – and it is doubly problematic because it includes money for the controversial Columbia River Crossing project at Vancouver, a bridge the Senate Majority Caucus isn’t ready to cross. “That is fundamentally important to my jobs program, so we put people back to work, so that we can compete for the next Boeing jet airliner, so they don’t move it to South Carolina or somewhere else because we haven’t dealt with transportation.”
Inslee said, “I don’t think that the Legislature or the governor should walk away from our responsibilities to deal with these known challenges. And so far we haven’t accomplished that and I want to work with legislators to do that.”
Republicans are Perplexed
House Democrats weren’t expressing concern Wednesday about Inslee’s tough talk. Inslee is staking out a position as partisan as their own. “There are a number of bills they haven’t moved forward [in the Senate],” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “As far as the budget is concerned, we will move forward.” Indeed, the House Democrats buttressed Inslee Wednesday as they passed their $900 million tax bill — which in broad strokes mirrors the spending plan Inslee proposed earlier this month.
But House Republicans and members of the Majority Caucus say Inslee doesn’t seem to be expressing much interest in bringing the two sides together. Until his news conference, Inslee had presented no demands about policy bills as part of the Legislature’s endgame, said Senate Ways and Means Chair Andy Hill, R-Redmond. “I’ve met with the governor twice and with the governor’s office three times in the last week and a half, and none of those times those bills were mentioned.”
State Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, the House Republican budget lead, said he is getting very, very worried. With such big differences between the House and Senate, negotiating a compromise ought to be the governor’s top priority. “The key in previous negotiations, when we have had this kind of separation, is that the governor’s office has been an integral part of these negotiations and looked at both sides and tried to find some compromise which reflects his or her priority, but which also tries to bring together the results to a point where we can have a vote that represents the interests of both parties. I don’t see that.”