Wrangling over state budget reflects disappearing political center

Contributing WriterJune 26, 2013 

Of the hapless 1962 New York Mets, the legendary Casey Stengel, then the team’s manager, asked, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

Monday morning, with no apparent budget agreement and 25,000 layoff notices on their way to state workers, a lot of Washingtonians were asking the same question of the team in Olympia. That afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a budget agreement was imminent. Maybe by the time you read this, the deed will be done. It should be.

Budget writers had a little help from the economy. Last week’s forecasts of higher revenues and lower costs gave them another $300 million to work with. The numbers were in line with expectations, but no less welcome for being foreshadowed.

While it’s not a lot of money — less than 1 percent of the current $32 billion two-year state budget — it’s enough grease to ease the friction slowing negotiations. But this year the game changed. The split-the-difference compromise on numbers hasn’t come easily. Legislative politics, reflecting national trends, has become less accommodating, more defined by partisan differences.

The state’s largest public employee union was quick to hang blame. In an email to members Sunday afternoon, the Washington Federation of State Employees wrote, “It’s a time to be disgusted that one faction and one faction alone, the Senate Majority Coalition, has brought this long stalemate to this late stage. Their refusal to compromise has pushed us over the cliff on the layoff notices.”

Earlier this month, Inslee delivered the same message (he’s carefully moderated the rhetoric in more recent public comments). Erik Smith, with the online news service Washington State Wire, counted 19 references to “ideology” in Inslee’s June 11 press conference. Each reference placed sole responsibility for the budget deadlock on the Senate majority’s intransigence.

The riff on the other side’s “ideological agenda” is a hoary tactic designed to marginalize. I’m principled; you’re an ideologue. Strongly held convictions animate legislative affairs. Both sides stake out turf, defend and attack. Ultimately, though, politics must lead to resolution, what Bismarck calls the “art of the possible.”

This year much that we used to take for granted — writing a state budget, funding transportation, improving public education, expanding access to higher education — sometimes appeared to be impossible. In the end, people with different values, priorities, and principles will find a way to compromise, to claim partial victory. But those imperfect compromises do not come easily.

Years ago I heard a man exclaim during a contentious public debate: “Can’t we all rise above principle and do the right thing?”

That’s not how it works. Convictions aren’t cast off like ballast when they become inconvenient. Don’t blame the partisans when consensus fails to materialize. They reflect the divisions that define our state.

The Senate majority came to power arguing for governance reforms and a budget balanced with no new taxes. House Democrats contend that the state cannot increase education funding and restore social services without raising taxes, mostly on businesses and the wealthy. Both sides have an ideological agenda.

An objective reading of the November election results gives the nod to the Senate majority. Voters last fall overwhelmingly approved Initiative 1185 requiring a supermajority vote for tax increases. Though the state Supreme Court struck down the provision, the sentiment lingers.

I have friends who think budget balancing is just a matter of setting priorities, implicitly assuming that everyone shares their priorities — or that they will, once they understand what’s at stake. What we’ve seen throughout the 2013 legislative session is a stiff competition between competing priorities and policies.

The increased number of safe seats and sharper political polarization complicates negotiations. With fewer centrists in play, politicians concentrate on motivating the base rather than persuading the other side. Incumbents worry more about intraparty challenges. Democrats look over their left shoulders; Republicans, their right. Compromise comes with political risk.

Economist Herbert Stein, referring to worrisome economic trends, observed that things that cannot go on forever eventually come to an end.

Happily, that’s true of budget stalemates, too. But the game in Olympia has changed, reflecting the disappearing center in American politics. And few yet know how to it play it well.

Bainbridge Island resident Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email him at rsdavis@simeonpartners.com.

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