OLYMPIA, March 18.—You heard it here first: Republicans are saying they miss former Gov. Christine Gregoire. The breakdown of transportation negotiations during the just-finished session seems to have produced one of the most-determined cases of partisan fingerpointing on record. What makes this one different is that the Democratic governor himself is joining the fray, saying all blame goes to the other team – something you never would have heard during the administration of his predecessor. “All we had was excuses,” declared Gov. Jay Inslee the moment the session was over. “Look, if excuses were money, the [Senate] Majority Coalition would all be multi-millionaires.” Disgusted members of the largely-Republican Senate Majority Coalition are telling Inslee to go look in the mirror.
Nothing may be more deadly-dull than the details of a squabble that already is a matter of history, and which really wasn’t all that interesting to begin with — a matter of offers and counteroffers that seem to have been scribbled on the backs of napkins and shoved across the negotiating table. But if you take three steps back you might notice something – there really wasn’t much talking going on in the first place. And there are many at the statehouse who say the real failure was one of leadership, and that the governor’s combative attitude was the single most important factor in this year’s biggest legislative kerthump.
And so comes this startling comment from Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. He says Inslee is making former Gov. Christine Gregoire look good. If Gregoire was still governor, he says, “I think we probably would have had some type of comprehensive transportation package. She always was working to facilitate agreement between the caucuses at the endgame. I was there negotiating budgets and policies in the last days of her administration. She was good at being a facilitator, and even if you didn’t agree with her, she seemed to have a superior ability to produce results.”
If Schoesler’s comment doesn’t strike you as odd, you probably don’t remember the bitter argument that raged between Gregoire and statehouse Republicans during her two terms in office. And that he is now recalling the Gregoire Administration with fondness ought to tell you something about the way things have gone at the statehouse during the last year-and-a-quarter. Ever since Inslee’s inauguration lawmakers have been dickering over a transportation plan that might raise $12 billion or so and impose a gas-tax increase of, say, 11.5 cents a gallon. The specific issues involved might strike an outsider as boring to an extreme, but the bigger point is that Inslee didn’t play the role Gregoire often did, sitting Democrats and Republicans in a room and urging them to reason together. That bodes ill for the idea that any agreement ever will be reached – this year, after the election. Or next year, when other massive tax increases are going to be a central matter of debate. Or anytime after that. Meanwhile, roads are crumbling, traffic jams are impeding the flow of commerce, and major highway projects remain in the blueprint stage.
A Chicken-and-Egg Squabble
Lawmakers kept squabbling about details right up until adjournment. But the striking thing is that they seemed to spend more time complaining that the other side didn’t want to negotiate than they spent actually negotiating. After a long season of talks last fall between Republicans and Democrats ultimately fell apart last Dec. 18, lawmakers came back to town in January – and did nothing. Rather than getting together behind closed doors when the session began, Inslee and House and Senate Democrats folded their arms and declared that if the Senate wanted to keep the ball rolling, it had to take a vote. Fair was fair: The House had taken a vote for a transportation package in the 2013 session. But anyone who understood the workings of the statehouse knew it was a little more complicated than that. For the Senate to take a vote, Democrats and Republicans had to strike a deal first. So which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
It wasn’t just that the Majority Coalition didn’t have the votes on its own to pass a bill on the floor. It was also a matter of the rules of the institution itself. The Senate Transportation Committee is chaired by representatives of both parties, an arrangement hailed as a measure of bipartisanship when it was devised last year. In a perfect world it might have worked. But it meant both sides had to agree beforehand in order to advance anything to the floor. And the whole thing gets horribly complicated, amid accusations from Democrats that Republicans would never provide enough votes – “my members would get jammed,” complained Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island. There were demands from the Ds that the Majority Coalition prove in writing that it would provide either 13 or 14 votes, before they would even consider allowing a floor vote to take place — it was never clear exactly how many Majority Coalition votes they wanted.
Here’s something that might have been noticed, though, by anyone sitting outside the negotiating room. It was empty the first full month of session. The governor called all the players down to his office the first day of session in January – “it was more of a formality sort of thing,” Schoesler says. “And then we didn’t hear from him.”
There was no talking whatever until the Senate Majority Coalition took matters into its own hands. It booked a room at the Capitol for a negotiating session in mid-February and dared the Democrats to show up. And while Democrats said they believed the other side was lying about the number of votes it might provide, they never bothered calling the bluff. They might have done so easily, by allowing the transportation package to advance to the floor along with the reform bills the Majority Coalition Caucus was demanding. “They want to point their fingers at us and say, oh, it is all the MCC’s fault,” said Senate Transportation co-chair Curtis King, R-Yakima. “It is obvious to me that over the last month, the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate were not interested in getting a revenue package out this session.”
You hear the same thing on the Democratic side. “I believe they were playing a game, and the game was getting out of here without passing a gas tax,” said Democratic co-chair Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way. Bottom line? The vote never took place, and there was no way to tell.
Governor Reveals Inside Dope
A fair-minded arbiter might have been able to see just how silly the whole thing was, might have been able to rise above it all and might have led lawmakers to compromise. Gregoire used to do it. But Inslee wasn’t interested in playing that role. Instead, he took the side of the statehouse Dems – a losing proposition if he was interested in striking a deal. He even made it tougher, by refusing to foreclose the possibility that he might impose low-carbon fuel standards by executive order, a greenhouse-gas reduction measure that might increase the price of fuel dramatically.
What happened at the governor’s traditional end-of-session news conference illustrated the point rather well. Inslee reached into the breast pocket of his suitcoat. “I’m just going to pull out one little document I thought you might be interested in,” he said.
It was a chart that showed what exactly the Senate Majority Coalition had proposed on sales taxes during the last year of transportation talks. “Every time we tried to negotiate a package, I would bring the Democrats to the middle, and Republicans would then go backwards,” he said.
And sure enough, it did seem to show that. One of the big points of dispute during the transportation negotiations has been Democratic insistence that the state continue its longstanding practice of siphoning off gas-tax money for the state general fund. That practice violates the spirit of a constitutional amendment passed by the state’s voters in 1944 which says all gas-tax money ought to be spent for highway purposes. The state has evaded that restriction for decades by levying a sales tax on construction materials. Big bucks are involved – in the latest transportation plan, somewhere between a half-billion and a billion dollars might be hoovered up into the state coffers and spent for anything lawmakers desire. Republicans are urging that the state end the practice, as part of a reform program they say might improve public confidence that gas-tax money is being spent wisely.
What the chart showed is that during a negotiating session Dec. 18, the Majority Coalition and House and Senate Democrats agreed to split things down the middle. The practice could continue for existing projects, but not for future ones. It was a $480 million deal. But other issues prevented lawmakers from shaking hands, and later, during this year’s legislative session, the Senate Majority Coalition came back with other more-expansive proposals on the sales-tax issue. A proposal they made in February would have eliminated all diversions of money – an $840 million proposal. “It is hard to negotiate when people go backwards from their negotiating positions,” the governor said. “This happened repeatedly during the negotiations.”
Well, yes – but the Democrats did it, too.
Breaches Cone of Silence
What was startling about the governor’s comments is that you just never see that kind of revelation when lawmakers are struggling to reach agreement. The session might be over, but there is still the chance lawmakers might strike a deal in months to come – or at least there used to be. Now furious members of the Senate Majority Coalition say the governor breached the cone of silence that normally extends over negotiating sessions. The document Inslee whipped out of his pocket was a chart prepared by the Majority Coalition during one of their final closed-door talks this last session. The governor’s staff says the document had already leaked to the press – apparently some reporters had it prior to the press conference — though the Senate Majority Coalition says it never released it, and Washington State Wire certainly didn’t have a copy.
While it is hard for anyone in the press to get worked up about a leak – reporters would rather see more of that sort of thing, not less — angry members of the Majority Coalition say the governor told a tiny portion of the story in order to score a political point. So they have released a more comprehensive chart that shows what both sides were proposing at every stage of the negotiations. It basically shows that both sides were constantly changing their positions, on all the various issues involved, and Democrats backtracked just like the Majority Coalition did.
Some of that really isn’t a secret. Over the last couple of weeks, Eide let it be known that after both sides agreed on the $480 million sales tax figure in December, her side also changed its mind. After the state Supreme Court issued a new court order regarding its McCleary decision on Jan. 5, telling lawmakers that they had to come up with a plan to provide billions of dollars for the public schools, Democrats decided they didn’t want to give up a penny of sales tax revenue. “That’s when we said we couldn’t use sales tax at all.” Meanwhile the next Majority Coalition proposal on sales tax — $840 million – was a matter of public record, revealed at a news conference Feb. 13.
Eide takes great umbrage at the fact that the Majority Coalition ratcheted its figure up, and doesn’t see a problem in the fact that her side ratcheted its figure down. “It was just constantly a shell game,” she says – the other side kept raising new issues, she says. But when you know that both sides changed their minds constantly throughout the negotiations, it becomes a little harder to say one side played fair and the other didn’t.
Good Old Days of Gregoire
It is the kind of thing that makes you long for the good old days of Gregoire, Republicans say. “What was missing throughout the 2014 session was bipartisan leadership by the governor and commitment to reforming our transportation system,” King says. “Gov. Inslee failed to bring the two parties together, and the Democratic co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee along with leadership among the Senate’s minority Democrats, failed to allow reforms to come to a vote.”
“Had those two things happened, we likely would have come to an agreement and approved a transportation package that worked for all of Washington. Instead, the governor preferred engaging in a Washington-D.C.-style blame game instead of showing true bipartisan leadership.”
Piffle, Dems say. But because massive tax general tax increases are on the table next year as a result of the Supreme Court’s K-12 ruling, they say they aren’t expecting any action on transportation for a good long time – maybe years. The window of opportunity that existed this year now seems to be closed. Eide, who is retiring this year, offered her parting shot in a joint TVW interview with King. “Next year, sir, you are going to be the Lone Ranger on this – but you know what? I’m going to be yelling at home, go man, because we need this package.”