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Senate Majority Caucus Set the Pace for This Year’s Legislative Session – Decision by Two Senators to Caucus With Republicans Made All the Difference

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who with Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, changed the course of the session.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who with fellow Democrat Tim Sheldon changed the course of the session.

OLYMPIA, July 3.—When people look back on the 2013 legislative session, it will be hard to escape the conclusion – it was the year the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus set the pace. Or to be totally specific, it was the year that two votes made all the difference.

When Democrats Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom made their fateful decision last December to cast their lot with the 23 Republicans in the state Senate to form the Majority Coalition, they changed the course of a session. They ensured big tax increases were taken off the table, and that as the state emerged from recession the lion’s share of the new revenue would be spent on education, not general government. The final $33.6 billion budget, the one big bill the Legislature was required to pass, ultimately reflected the sort of bipartisanship the two of them called for at the start of the session. And if there were big disappointments toward the end on policy and a failed transportation package – it just went to show that bipartisanship is a two-way street, and the other team has to be willing to dicker.

It was a session marked by brilliant maneuvers on both sides – unusual parliamentary motions, out-of-the-box negotiating tactics between the House and the Senate, squeeze plays, shutdowns and hostage-taking – the sort of gamesmanship that turned ordinary floor sessions into the stuff of excitement. And there were a few inexplicable choices by the governor, in particular a curious veto in May that all but ensured the defeat of a transportation package this year and caused the costly demise of a long-planned bridge project at Vancouver. For his part, Gov. Jay Inslee is describing the outcome as a triumph of “rigorous control of the ideological right wing of the Republican party” – which says as much about his perceptions as it does about what really happened. The signature bill of the year, the budget, was passed by unusually large margins, 44-4 in the Senate and 81-11 in the House, demonstrating plenty of support on both sides. And at the end of the grueling nearly-six-month session that ended Saturday night, as the Senate was running through its final motions to send lawmakers home, Sheldon, D-Potlatch, had a grin on his face.

Sheldon recalled a conversation he had with the late Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, who died late in May. “We said to each other, this is the best session ever.”

And like Tom, Sheldon says he has no regrets.

Government Divided Once More

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

What happened this year was a continuation of a trend that has been at work in the state Legislature for the last three or four years – a natural reaction to the winds of politics. Washington voters have been displaying an increasingly blue tint. They have given the Democrats the majority in the House since 2003, in the Senate since 2005, and despite hard-fought campaigns at the top of the ballot, Democrats have won every gubernatorial campaign since 1984, the longest current single-party winning streak in the nation.

When one party remains in charge for years, cracks begin to develop. The public-employee unions and other special-interest groups that provide most of the money for Democratic campaigns have been demanding increasing fealty, even working to defeat Democrats who fail to toe the line. Centrist Democrats have felt increasingly uncomfortable. In 2010, Democratic moderates in the House and the Senate began organizing themselves in what they called the “Roadkill Caucus,” a joking reference to the old political saw about the two things you find in the middle of the road, the other being yellow stripes. In 2011, it was the year of the Roadkillers — they drove the passage of unemployment insurance and workers’ comp legislation, and they forced Democratic leaders to include Republicans in budget negotiations. In 2012 it was the year of the 9th Order – when Democratic leaders attempted to hold firm in the Senate, the tactic backfired. Three centrist Democrats voted for a fiscally conservative Republican budget and essentially turned control of the chamber upside down. And this was the year of the Majority Caucus, when the trend reached apogee. Rather than waiting for the end of session to make another move, Tom and Sheldon, two of the three who voted with the Republicans in 2012, joined with them to form the coalition that took power on opening day. That gave the Majority Coalition 25 votes, the Senate Democratic Caucus 24. Power was formally divided at the statehouse, in a way it hadn’t been for eight years.

It ought to be noted that some moderate Dems didn’t go along. Roadkillers Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, stood with their party and weren’t about to caucus with the Rs, though they played an important role in brokering compromises on big reform bills, and they offered support during votes on the budget. “I didn’t join them because I feel that you’re trading one set of restrictions for another,” Hobbs says. “If you really want true governing from the middle, you almost have to not have parties, not have caucuses.” True centrism probably would have permitted a few more bills to move forward, he said, in particular a bill that would have required health insurers to cover abortion, the Reproductive Parity Act, which was supported by a majority of members of the Senate. The measure, of dubious effect, was advocated by abortion-rights groups and injected the divisive and long-ago-settled issue of abortion into the current session; any bill promoting abortion was too much for Republicans to swallow. But it wasn’t the most important bill of the session, Hobbs allows, and you have to admit the budget, in the end, was a bipartisan document. “It’s good to see something continue that was started in 2011 when a bunch of moderate Democrats decided we would like to see people working together.”

Crossing the Rubicon

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

By joining with the Republicans this year, Sheldon and Tom no doubt have ensured that they will not be invited to future Democratic Party clambakes. State Democratic chairman Dwight Pelz even declared that they were “no longer Democrats,” though of course in a state where political parties have no control over the ballot the public excommunication carries no legal significance. Sheldon, who became president pro tempore at the start of the session, says there are some Democratic senators who no longer speak to him, even about the weather. “There is bitterness,” he says. “Bitterness that they didn’t have control and that they just waited – but what kind of strategy is it to wait for the other side to disintegrate?”

Democratic Sens. Steve Hobbs and Brian Hatfield explain why they took the deal.

Democratic Sens. Steve Hobbs and Brian Hatfield accepted gavels, but the Senate Democratic Caucus as a whole rejected the olive branch.

It didn’t happen, of course. The Majority Caucus, though comprised of Republican conservatives, Republican moderates and the two centrist Dems, held together all session long. “Everybody said it couldn’t be done,” recalls Mark Schoesler, the Senate Republican leader. “Our opponents all thought we would implode. December, January, February, March – at some point they were all confident we would fall apart. We never lost a fight on the floor. We never lost an amendment. It was the same as in 1963, when [former Gov. Dan] Evans and [former Sen. Slade] Gorton led a group in the House. We never had a bill go down.”

Tom, who became Majority Leader, said the expectation of an internal breakdown may have slowed the course of the session. “The governor really paid no attention to us for probably the first month or two, because he was just expecting us to fail – I really don’t need to pay attention to these guys, because in two weeks they will be gone.”

The expectation no doubt contributed to one of the session’s epic miscalculations. At the start of the session, the Majority Coalition Caucus extended an olive branch to the Senate Democrats, offering them chairmanships of six committees. The Democrats said no to any sharing of power that might have cemented the other team’s control, though Hobbs and Hatfield individually accepted gavels, and Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, accepted a co-chairmanship of the Transportation Committee. Had Democrats gone for the offer and taken, for instance, the chairmanship of the higher education committee, it is likely that at least one of their big priorities would have made it to the floor and ultimately would have been passed – a state-level “Dream Act” measure providing state college financial aid for the children of illegal immigrants.  

A Truly Bipartisan Budget

Senate budget-writer Andy Hill is surrounded by well-wishers in the moments after the budget bill passed the Senate Friday.

Congratulations for Senate Ways and Means Chair Andy Hill as the Senate passes the final budget deal Friday.

It seems so long ago that the session began that the big issue that drove Tom and Sheldon’s decision has largely been forgotten. But when lawmakers were gearing up for the 2013 session last fall the talk was about the inevitability of a big tax hike. Even though the state would have substantially more money for its 2013-15 budget – some $2.1 billion, as it turned out – the state Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2012 that required the state to pump a billion or so into basic K-12 education. Legislative Democrats said the course was obvious, a tax increase was the only solution. Even Gov. Inslee, who appeared to argue in a vague way during last year’s campaign that no tax increase was needed, changed his tune practically the moment he was sworn into office. Proposals from Inslee and the House Democrats would have required tax increases of $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion respectively, and it ought to be noted that the House Democrats, who unlike Inslee produced a fully-fleshed-out proposal, also wanted to spend another $575 million from the state’s rainy-day account.

The Senate held the line. Republican budget-writers opened the door to the Senate Democrats and crafted a budget that reflected spending priorities from both sides. The Senate’s no-new-tax budget arguably contained a few questionable assumptions and controversial maneuvers, as budget proposals always do, and the final deal incorporated a couple of tax increases worth about a quarter-billion, aimed at correcting the effect of adverse court rulings on telephone taxation and the Washington estate tax. Making the deal easier was an extra $321 million that came as a result of new caseload and economic forecasts in June. But the key point is that in many respects the final spending plan reflected the rather more moderate position taken by Senate Democrats during the budget debate of April 5, when in a little-noticed move they offered amendments that would have increased spending by $455 million, mainly for social programs.

Even though House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, maintained last week that the final budget agreement was “very similar” to the House proposal, it wasn’t. At least a billion dollars in tax increases were avoided. The rainy-day fund wasn’t tapped.

The budget was the single biggest accomplishment of the session, Tom says. “I think our biggest success was really in exposing the lie that in order to properly fund education, you need new revenue.”

And then there’s the spending-priority issue – a point of big concern to fiscal conservatives in both parties. Over the last 30 years, as the state budget has nearly tripled, the rate of spending growth for general government has ballooned 563 percent, while spending for K-12 and higher ed has increased just 289 percent. It is one of the big reasons lawmakers these days find themselves short of cash every year. This year’s budget reverses the trend. Education is up 11.7 percent, everything else, just 3.

Opportunity for Compromise is Missed

Blames failures on "Republican ideology": Gov. Jay Inslee.

Blames failures on “Republican ideology”: Gov. Jay Inslee at his post-session news conference Saturday night.

The session’s big failures came in the policy arena. The Senate Majority Coalition came to power with ambitious policy goals that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under full Democratic control of the statehouse. In the end, with the exception of a few non-controversial education bills, only two major pieces of reform legislation made it through – redirecting money raised by the state’s hazardous substance tax to its original purpose, the cleanup of polluted sites, and repealing the state’s never-implemented family leave insurance plan if no financing mechanism can be found by 2015. There was no agreement on big education bills favored by the Senate, on a spending-limits measure, and on a bill that would have expanded a modest and not-altogether-successful workers’ compensation settlement program authorized by the Legislature in 2011. And on the final day of the session, a proposal for a $10 billion transportation package fell apart when Senate leaders confirmed a point that had been obvious for some time – they would not permit a vote on the floor.

The latter point had Gov. Inslee fuming. “We have had a total failure of the Republican Party to pass a transportation package after six months of dithering and inaction by the caucus. This was supposed to be a bipartisan majority. But it has turned into nothing but a roadblock for a transportation package.”

Early artist's conception of the Columbia River Crossing.

The Columbia River Crossing, shot down after $170 million had been spent on planning, in large part due to an astounding political miscalculation by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The thing about politics is that nothing ever is as simple as it seems, and the governor himself played a major role in the failure to pass a gas-tax increase. The single biggest obstacle was the fact that the package provided $450 million to launch the Columbia River Crossing. The bridge project at Vancouver was a matter of enormous local controversy, and was opposed by several key members of the Senate Majority Coalition. Compromise on design issues might have been possible if the state House had taken a vote on the transportation package at the start of the Legislature’s first special session on May 13. Lawmakers would have had plenty of time to haggle. For 30 days the Legislature was technically in session, though it had no business to conduct and did not pass a single bill. The lack of activity might easily have been foreseen, because no budget deal was likely to emerge prior to the release of the forecasts on June 18. Had Democrats been willing to bargain on the bridge and other Senate reform bills, a deal might have been struck on transportation. Instead, Democratic leaders curiously waited until the 150th day of the 153-day session to bring the transportation package to the House floor for a vote, and House did not actually pass it until the 151st day.

At the same time, in one of the most astounding political misfires in recent memory, the governor gave bridge opponents a good reason to oppose the transportation package. Inslee vetoed $81 million in the transportation budget that would have kept the CRC on life support, and would have provided money for a redesign of the bridge had that been necessary. Inslee’s argument was that it was now or never, and his tactic aimed to increase pressure for the package. But what it meant was that simply by not taking a vote, bridge opponents got their way. Now the states of Washington and Oregon are closing down the project. In his end-of-session news conference, Inslee declared that the failure to pass a transportation package was entirely the fault of the Senate Majority Caucus – “it has ownership rights to that failure,” he said. He added that a saving grace of the session was that the coalition “did not get many things that it wanted to foist on the state of Washington.”

So Much for Bipartisanship

So maybe some people aren’t eager to participate in the give-and-take that is the only way that a parliamentary body like the Legislature ever gets anything done. Tom says the Senate will come back with a transportation plan of its own next year, but he adds pointedly, “If you are the governor and you want this thing to pass, you have got to get out front and really lead.”

Big money for education, no tuition increase at the state’s colleges and universities – you have to call that a victory, he says. “I’m receiving lots of calls, e-mails, texts from individuals who are excited about what we were able to accomplish. I think they kind of look back and think it is a miracle. And you know, we were definitely kind of a longshot.”

And if it hadn’t been for that decision back in December, Sheldon says he is convinced the story of this year’s session would have been writ by a Seattle-centric Democratic leadership bent on tax increases. “What I see, going into the future, is that the appetite for the reforms is still out there. We have possibilities now, because I think we will grow our philosophical majority. And I think it is a little hard for some people to accept.”

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