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Roadkillers Draw the Line!

Article by Erik Smith. Published on Saturday, December 04, 2011 EST.

No Revenue Without Reforms, They Say – And So Much for the Special Session

 


State Sens. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup; Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond; and Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

By Erik Smith

Staff writer/ Washington State Wire

 

OLYMPIA, Dec. 3.—Members of the Legislature’s Roadkill Caucus, the band of moderate Democrats that played a decisive role in last year’s legislative session, are drawing the line and saying they won’t vote to send a tax hike to the ballot unless the House and Senate enact reforms first.

            That seems to seal the fate of this month’s special session, and makes it clear that there won’t be a deal on taxes before Christmas. That’s because it is likely to take weeks before there is any agreement on big-picture changes to state government.

            Not that it really comes as any surprise. Lawmakers of all stripes and parties have been saying for days that they doubt they can come to agreement before the session ends for the holidays. Technically, the 30-day session runs until Dec. 27, but practically speaking no one in America works during the holidays, whether you say they start with Christmas on Dec. 25 or Hannukah on Dec. 21.

            What the Roadkillers’ declaration does, though, is make it certain. Agreement was reached in a meeting of the Roadkill Caucus Thursday night in Olympia. The Legislature returned to Olympia Monday for its second special session of the year, ostensibly to hammer out a budget deal, figure out how to fill the state’s $2 billion budget hole, and possibly send a tax package to the voters. But the Roadkillers are saying that they won’t vote for a tax referendum until either the Legislature enacts big reforms and sees them signed into law by the governor, or they are included in the projected ballot measure. Promises aren’t good enough, they say.

            “I think that if we go to the voters and ask them to vote for more taxes, they need to know that we have our house in order,” said state Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup.

           

            Roadkillers in Drivers’ Seat

 

The Roadkill Declaration is important because the middle-of-the-road Democrats are in the power position at the statehouse. It is especially true in the Senate, where Democrats have a slim 27-22 advantage, and three votes can turn the outcome.

Last session, as cuts loomed on the horizon, the Roadkillers insisted on a bipartisan approach to the budget, bringing Republicans to the bargaining table in the Senate. More liberal Democrats were left to express frustration that their party was not holding firm. The upshot was that all talk of sending a tax hike to the ballot for voter approval was scuttled, and it became clear from day one that the Legislature would pass an all-cuts budget. The Roadkillers also played a decisive role in last session’s debates on unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation reform.

This time out, the issues are different but the dynamic is the same. This session it appears clear that some sort of taxation proposal will emerge from the Legislature and appear on the ballot sometime next year. The Roadkillers, a loose-knit bunch of Democrats who see themselves as somewhat more sympathetic to business interests than others in their own party, number perhaps a sixth of the Legislature – enough to tip the balance at the statehouse. The name derives from the old political saying that the only things you find in the middle of the road are white lines and roadkill.

Actually, some think they ought to call themselves problem-solvers, Kastama explains. “Everyone there is trying to see themselves as trying to constructively solve the problems we face. When it comes to the budget, everyone knows that the budget is unsustainable, even with a tax increase. We have a structural problem, and if we ask people to vote for taxes and then we start telling them again that we are going to cut crucial programs, I think people are going to be even more frustrated than they are now.”

 

            Reforms Before Revenue

 

It is important to note that the Roadkillers hold the power precisely because the minority Republicans at the statehouse take roughly the same stand on government reform. In fact, this week a sign has been posted on the door of the Senate Republican Caucus meeting room at the Capitol: “Reforms Before Revenue,” it says. Only by standing together with the Republicans can the Roadkillers influence the course of the Legislature.

Whether they will be able to agree on an agenda is another matter. Republican support for any sort of a tax package is an iffy thing altogether. There the Roadkillers may be working with their own party. The Roadkillers are working on a list of things they’d like to see, and while they don’t have the list ready in a formal way, members interviewed by Washington State Wire say a general consensus is forming.

“Not everybody is in agreement, but there are a number of things that were thrown out there,” said state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. “What we are going to do is to have a reform package and hand it over to [Democratic] leadership, because that’s where leadership is at. Leadership asked everyone to put in their reform ideas and hand it over.”

 

           What the Roadkillers Want

 

Here’s what the Roadkillers are talking about, in a general way. When it comes to a tax proposal, they say their preference is for a general tax increase – a sales-tax hike, most likely – rather than taxes that target business. Not that the position is any surprise. Everyone from the governor on down has been saying that a general tax increase is the most politically feasible approach, though the idea hasn’t generated much enthusiasm from the left.

More important are the reform ideas. First off, they want to cancel programs that remain on the books that the state can’t afford. That means things like initiatives 728 and 732, the decade-old ballot measures that mandate enormous increases in K-12 spending, but which the state has rarely had the money to pay for. That might also mean education reforms passed in 2009, or the never-funded state family leave program. Initiative 1029, the never-implemented multi-million-dollar SEIU home-care training program, might prove a little more troublesome, because voters reauthorized it with Initiative 1163 in November.

Next on the list is health care spending, possibly meaning changes to state-employee and K-12 health insurance programs.

And then comes a relaxation or delay of regulations that impose big costs on business and government, perhaps including storm water rules and water permits.

Until the final list emerges, Roadkillers say, nothing is set in stone. The big thing is that they aren’t about to say yes to taxes until they get something in return.

 

            So Much for the Session!

 

What it means is that the current special session is about as likely to reach a resolution as Herman Cain is of reaching the White House. Each one of those reform ideas is likely to encounter serious opposition. State Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, says he might be willing to consider including the reform ideas in the inevitable ballot measure, something that conceivably be done before Christmas if the sun, the moon and the stars line up. Not that he’s holding his breath. And that idea has some pitfalls as well, because it might run afoul of the state’s single-subject rule for ballot measures. Run the proposals separately and there’s the risk that voters might say yes to one and no to another.

“I don’t see us as standing in the way of accomplishing anything in the special session,” he said. “Rather, I think we’re in position to make something happen.”

 

            Why Are They Here?

 

The idea that the special session might end without a deal is a big disappointment for Gov. Christine Gregoire, who called lawmakers back to Olympia after Thanksgiving and did her best to set the agenda.

“It would be incredibly disappointing if lawmakers couldn’t wrap up the budget before the end of the special session,” said spokeswoman Karina Shagren. “The governor told them in September that she was going to call them back – and made it clear that she wanted the budget wrapped up by the end of December so the focus could be shifted to job creation in January. The special session – and her intentions – weren’t a surprise to anyone. And even before September, knowing our revenue picture was going to be down, the governor has been working tirelessly to look at where we can reduce costs, brainstorm strategies and vet ideas. Lawmakers certainly had all the information they needed to do the same thing and get the job of fixing our budget done on time.”

The longer it takes to find a budget solution, Shagren said, the deeper the Legislature will have to cut.

            But Hatfield says big issues like these take time – everyone in the Legislature knows that. So maybe the special session really does have a point. Lawmakers had to start sometime.
            “It’s hard for the governor to understand because she has never been a legislator,” he said. “She’s here full-time, and we’ve got families and lives. You have to be in Olympia to deal with questions like these. If you’re not in Olympia, you’re not able to focus on these things.”


Sign on the Senate Republican Caucus meeting-room door.


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