News Column

Washington Legislature Passes Budget, Not Much Else

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In the end, the Republicans' business-friendly agenda was stifled, the Democrats' taxes were blocked, and both called it a pretty good deal.

Welcome to Washington's new world of partisan split, which leaves both sides of Legislature short of their goals in a divided government.

The two parties in the Legislature produced a long-overdue budget that infuses new money into education and won more support than any other spending plan in recent years -- but not before their disputes brought the state to the brink of a government shutdown.

The seeds for the showdown were planted six months ago when two Democrats crossed over to help Republicans take over the state Senate. Announcing their coalition, they demanded a budget without tax increases.

"We will have a transparent budget that lives within our means," one of the renegade Democrats, Rodney Tom, predicted at the time. Said the other, Tim Sheldon: "We want to share power, work cooperatively, get out of here in 105 days. There's no reason to have special session after special session, and I think under this system we'll get there."

Two overtime periods and 153 days of session later, their promise to finish on time turned out to be just a wish. Their tax promise largely turned out to be true.

"I think living within our means is the most important win for the Majority Coalition Caucus -- as well as staying together for the entire session," said Sheldon, a Potlatch conservative who said from the beginning "the Olympia crowd was taking bets on what day the majority caucus would fold."

The coalition's conservatives and moderates diverged on a few key votes, including on two changes the Legislature made in response to court rulings -- both of which, legally speaking, would likely be considered tax increases. But the group kept tight discipline, rejecting all other taxes including a gas tax for roads that was wanted badly by some of its centrist and Pierce County members.

Moderates didn't revolt when the coalition refused to take votes on the gas tax, college aid for young immigrants without legal residency and a requirement for insurance plans to cover abortion. Conservatives didn't abandon ship when the group agreed to accept President Barack Obama's expansion of Medicaid to some 250,000 more people earning low wages to help pay for its spending plan.

Democrats in the House, themselves generally a disciplined bunch under Speaker Frank Chopp, refused Senate demands to loosen restrictions on workers-compensation settlements or payday-lending requirements. They held fast, too, against giving principals power over teacher assignments, capping non-education spending or cutting human services.

"That coalition did not get many things that it wanted to foist on the citizens of the state of Washington," Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters. But the frustrated Democrat complained moderates weren't allowed to cross over because of "rigorous control by the ideological right wing of the Republican Party."

Democrats had to give up on the social policies as well as most of the roughly $1 billion in new tax revenue for the two-year budget and all of the more than $9 billion over a decade for transportation. Because of those decisions, a major cut in business tax rates will take effect today and road projects like an extension of state Route 167 will continue to stall.

But the two parties still were able to agree on a budget that largely preserved social services while raising total education spending nearly 12 percent and education's share of the budget to nearly 55 percent from just under 53 percent.

Lawmakers froze college tuition for at least a year after a series of sharp increases. They started to address the K-12 funding shortage called out by the state Supreme Court, but remained far shy of figures they promised the court.

Lawmakers leave with few accomplishments outside the budget they had to pass to avoid shutting down much of state government.

"That would have been the first (time) ever in our history of not having a budget," said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington associate professor of political science and director of The Washington Poll. "Otherwise, during the regular session, it was largely a disaster. There was no effort to compromise. There was a lot of, 'I'm going to take my ball and go home,' by both sides."

Special sessions have occurred under full Democratic control too -- there have been eight since 2010 alone -- but it's been more than two decades since Washington came so close to entering the new fiscal year without a budget and shuttering much of state government.

Tens of thousands of state employees were notified they might not have jobs starting Monday. Observers can only wonder if lawmakers would have gone off the fiscal cliff if state economists hadn't bailed them out with a rosier forecast of revenue.

"This has been the worst session since I've been here by far, and not because I'm in the minority, but because of the total breakdown in statesmanship," said Democratic Sen. Kevin Ranker of Orcas Island, who arrived as the recession hit home in 2009.

Legislators dispute whether the outcome made it worth the wait.

"This is probably the budget we would have ended up with if it was Democrats in control -- this exact same budget, or really close to it. The only difference is we are months late doing it," Ranker said.

But Mercer Island Sen. Steve Litzow argues it's no coincidence lawmakers finally prioritized schools after his fellow Republicans took a share of control.

"They've been in charge for (almost) the last 10 years. The way they've been running education is the main reason the Supreme Court told us we weren't doing it right," said Litzow, who became chairman of the Senate Education Committee in the takeover.

From the political right, there are worries the GOP gave away too much. Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane said in recent years when Republicans were in a narrow minority, they and moderate Democrats were able to extract reforms like a requirement for the budget to be balanced over four years.

This year, they took formal power but their so-called reforms were blocked.

"The biggest shortcoming is that the House -- governor and House -- have been unwilling to accept things that would have created a lot more jobs or retained a lot of jobs," said Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville.

But the new majority got what it wanted most, Litzow said.

"The single biggest reform this year is that education is now the priority. And that was a huge fight and we put that stake in the ground -- and we're there," he said.

Democrats, too, wanted more school funding, and originally offered more of it than their rivals by proposing tax increases. But they moved to a lower spending level for K-12 schools than Republicans after the tax plan collapsed.

In the end, 125 of 147 lawmakers voted for the budget.

"Divided government is not the end of the world," said Rep. Tami Green, a Lakewood Democrat and the majority floor leader.

She said the work took so long not only because of the split but mainly because the new Senate majority took a while to learn how to be in charge.


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