After 105 days, the Legislature goes into overtime, with a two-week timeout for “cooling off.” Gov. Jay Inslee set the special session to begin May 13. Key budget writers will doubtless continue negotiations during intermission.
The House and Senate remain divided over whether new taxes are required to comply with the state Supreme Court’s order to increase school funding. They’re about $1 billion apart, a bridgeable chasm were the parties inclined to build bridges.
You saw this coming from the day the majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats took control of the Senate.
We know how this usually ends. The Senate accepts some taxes, and the House swallows some cuts. Some magic money appears, maybe Internet sales taxes, and handshakes all around. That may yet be the way it works out. But in this unusual season, we shouldn’t bank on the usual result.
Overtime is show time for governors. Executives mediate disputes, negotiate compromises and persuade the recalcitrant. Senate Republicans complain that Inslee sides with the House. In response, according to the online news service Publicola, Inslee told Democrats he was “not wearing a striped ref jersey.”
Fair enough. Inslee stated early on his preference for higher taxes and more spending, albeit with some creative parsing of campaign pledges. He’s not a disinterested observer.
He has an important role to play. Like his two immediate predecessors, Inslee’s an attorney. Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire both demonstrated a lawyer’s skill at mediation. They were able to handle difficult negotiations without abandoning their agendas. Inslee, too, will need to be an endgame player.
One suggestion to the governor: This might be a good time to dispense with lines like, “I’ve chosen children over tax breaks.” False dichotomies and partisan rhetoric don’t bring people to resolution.
Although Inslee is new to his job and to the state budget, his budget director, David Schumacher, is a former Senate Ways and Means staff director who enjoys bipartisan support and whose experience may be important. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, are also new to their leadership roles. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, of course, have been through the drill before. They’ll be skilled negotiators.
By giving lawmakers time away from Olympia, Inslee may have increased his legislative challenge. When they return home, most will find themselves surrounded by supporters encouraging them to hold fast to their positions. Few swing districts are left in our state. In safe districts, there’s little constituent enthusiasm for compromise. Party activists aren’t much for cooling off.
Democrats will be urged to raise taxes to boost education and social service spending; Republicans will be encouraged to maintain their pledge to resist new taxes. With the hiatus, urgency is sacrificed, along with the pressure to get the job done and go home for good.
While negotiators will be busy straight through, the challenge has never been to reach a compromise leadership can live with; it’s been to find a budget that the majority of members can support. To get there, it helps if all the players are in town sweating a deadline and available for consultation.
I suspect the leaders could quickly identify a workable compromise. But leaders need followers. The House, with a 55-43 Democratic majority, can afford to lose a few Democrats on the final vote, as they did when their major tax legislation passed with just 50 votes, all Democrats.
It’s more challenging in the Senate, where control hangs by the thinnest of threads. Although the Senate passed its budget on a 30-18 vote, several Democrats supporting the budget wanted more revenue. The coalition that prevails on the final budget vote may look quite different.
Prospects for success increase if the agenda is tightly controlled. Everything old shouldn’t be new again. Inslee says he wants action on controversial legislation, including insurance coverage for abortions, gun control and college aid for illegal immigrants.
Re-introducing wedge issues heightens partisan differences and further complicates a difficult situation. Where there’s a policy consensus, act on it, but keep the list short.
In this overtime, the players just need to score once: Pass a sustainable budget.Bainbridge Island resident Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.