OLYMPIA, Jan. 15.—Not that it came as any surprise after a month of furor in the state Senate, but a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats assumed the reins of power on the Legislature’s opening day and pledged to steer the state on a moderate course – a rather peaceable start as it turned out.
Three other Democrats accepted committee chairmanships from the new majority, while leaders of the Senate Democratic Caucus were forced to explain why they rejected an offer that would have given them much greater participation in the affairs of the upper chamber. It wasn’t bitterness, said Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle. “It is not bipartisan,” he insisted.
The takeover played out on the Senate floor Monday afternoon and offered a dramatic start to the 2013 Legislature. Lawmakers have returned to Olympia to launch their 105-day session, where the top issue will be finding $1 billion or more in new funding for K-12 schools. With the new Republican-dominated coalition ruling the Senate, it becomes clear that big tax increases are off the table. Already it appears one easy fix has been rejected – leaders of the new Senate majority said Tuesday said flatly that they will not consider extending temporary taxes on beer and service businesses passed by the Legislature in 2010. “Temporary really means temporary,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
The three Democrats who accepted gavels are senators Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who retains the chairmanship of the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee, Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, who retains the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee, and Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, who will co-chair the Transportation Committee. The Senate Democratic Caucus as a whole rejected an offer that would have allowed them to appoint six committee chairmen and three co-chairmen, choosing instead the role of a powerless minority for the remainder of the session.
Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, who broke party ranks with Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, and has assumed the role of majority leader, says he has big hopes for the session and wants to ensure that the Legislature governs from the middle. “This is Washington state,” he declared on the Senate floor. “This is not Washington, D.C. Let’s leave the chaos to Congress.”
A Slim Majority
Biggest question as the opening gavel fell was whether the new Majority Coalition Caucus will be able to hold together for the next three and a half months. It could have a major effect on the session. Lawmakers will be scrambling for money this year to satisfy the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which held that the state is not meeting a constitutional obligation to provide ample funding for the K-12 schools. Democrats are more inclined to talk about taxes, though even under ordinary circumstances passage would not be easy. Gov.-elect Jay Inslee has declared opposition, and a new two-thirds-for-taxes initiative, under appeal before the Supreme Court, would require Republican votes in the House and Senate. With the new coalition in the Senate, however, new taxes become virtually impossible.
But because the new coalition has a bare one-vote majority, 25 of the Senate’s 49 votes, all its members will have to stick together on the most important votes. Not an easy thing to accomplish when a majority is comprised of members of a single party, and even more difficult when it is a cross-party coalition that hopes to downplay hot-button social issues. Already one challenge has surfaced: Swing-district senators Hobbs and Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, have announced plans to push for the Reproductive Parity Act, a measure that would require health insurers to cover abortion. The measure is sure to bring opposition from more conservative members of the majority coalition.
In a meeting with reporters after the vote on the Senate floor, coalition leaders Schoesler and Tom downplayed the effect of the bill. Members are more concerned about the big picture, they said. Said Tom, “All we are saying is that we want to have a spirit of cooperation, and we are going to stick to our principles as far as focusing on jobs, education and a sustainable budget.”
Drama on the Floor
What played out on the Senate floor Tuesday was a rather technical parliamentary maneuver – the adoption of a rules change that defines a “majority caucus.” Senate Resolution 8601, adopted on a 25-23 vote, says that a majority can include members of more than one political party, and all it takes to create one is a declaration that they intend to caucus together. What it basically means is that the deal was sealed Dec. 10 when the 25 members of the new majority caucus signed a letter announcing their intentions. By doing it that way, the members of the new Majority Coalition Caucus did not have to elect a new majority leader from the floor, as they had originally thought. Tom and Schoesler said that by signing the letter, majority caucus members agreed that Tom would be majority leader.
But while the takeover was essentially settled weeks ago, there was still plenty of fulmination Monday from the Senate Democrats as they were aced out of power. The voters elected 26 Democrats last fall, they said – thus Democrats should rightly rule. Declared state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, “The voters’ choice last November was for a Democratic governor, for a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House. But the voters’ choice apparently doesn’t matter here today.”
And while the Democrats never offered the Republicans such a seat at the table during their eight years in the majority, the Democrats said the committee-chairmanship deal just wasn’t good enough. “In fact, I would call it BINO – bipartisanship in name only,” said state Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.
Murray complained to reporters that the deal would have given the Majority Coalition Caucus control of the Senate’s most important committees, among them the powerful budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. He also complained that the new majority caucus would have the deciding votes on the Senate Rules Committee, which determines the bills that advance to the Senate floor. “When you control Rules, you control everything,” he said. The four-vote advantage is “the widest split ever seen on Rules. That’s bipartisan? It’s not bipartisan.”
Murray’s facts are incorrect. Counting Lt. Gov. Brad Owen as a Democratic vote, the Senate Democratic Caucus gave itself the same or greater advantage on the Senate Rules Committee during the years of Democratic control. In 2005 and 2006, the Democrats gave themselves a four-vote advantage. From 2007 to 2010, they gave themselves a seven-vote advantage. In 2011 and 2012, they gave themselves a five-vote advantage.
Murray said the Democrats feel they can still have an effect even by sitting things out. “I actually think the bipartisan thing is a bit of a smokescreen,” he said. “I think that when people are interested in this state, that we get things done, that we work – I don’t think they are so concerned about whether it was bipartisan or wasn’t bipartisan as they are concerned about whether we do our business in a fair way.”
Democrats are Divided
Not all Democrats feel that way. Hobbs and Hatfield told reporters they aren’t joining the coalition – but they say if the majority offers a chance to control debate on an issue, a member of the minority team would be foolish to turn it down. “I don’t like what Tom and Sheldon did, but I don’t see where this changes anything,” said Hatfield, who has chaired the ag committee for the last four years. “I think you come to the realization that we are in the minority and at that point you play the hand that you are dealt.”
Hobbs, who has chaired Financial Institutions and Insurance for two years, said that after much internal debate the Senate Democratic Caucus decided that individual members could choose for themselves whether to accept chairmanships from the new majority coalition. He said it is an easy call for a senator from a swing district who views himself as a moderate. “Some were unhappy but everybody understood that it was an individual decision, and that we have to represent our districts.”
Eide’s case is a little different. She has served as a member of her caucus’ leadership team as Democratic floor leader. As co-chair she won’t control debate, but she will have veto power on the transportation committee, described by some as the second-most-powerful fiscal committee in the Senate. One possible implication: Transit interests may have greater influence on the transportation budget.
Will Change Course of Debate
So what is the coalition going to do? The big picture aside, already it is possible to see how the New Senate Order will affect debate on specific issues. Talk of extending temporary taxes from 2010 is a nonstarter, leaders say. By extending a B&O tax surcharge on service businesses, the state might raise $534 million; by extending a tax on beer, the state might raise $100 million.
Scratch that. Said Schoesler, “If you tell the people of this state that this is just temporary, you need to mean it or the credibility of the Legislature and the governor is gone.”
The coalition also takes a dim view of proposals to move school-bus funding to the transportation budget – a move that would likely boost the cost of gasoline and make it harder to pass a gas-tax increase for road construction.
Sheldon said proposals to use the state’s capital budget to purchase land for conservation purposes will meet strong opposition. That’s one of the top three priorities for the Environmental Priorities Coalition, the influential assemblage of environmental groups that lobbies the Legislature every session. “It is going to be hard to justify, given what we have spent in past years, and the maintenance that has not happened,” Sheldon said.
And for his part, Hatfield says that when his committee considers Initiative 522, the measure that would require labeling of genetically modified foods, his inclination will be to send it straight to the ballot rather than passing it in the Legislature. Let the voters have their say, he said. “That is an example of something that I wanted to have control over when we are dealing with ag issues,” he said.
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