Frosty Politics on Display at Wash. State Capitol

Dec 9, 2013

Like the weather, political relations in the Washington state Capitol have taken a frosty turn.

With split control of the Legislature, grueling negotiations have become the norm, first on the budget earlier this year and now on transportation funding. And the partisan divide cuts against a refrain you hear a lot in Olympia: “We’re not Washington, D.C.”

That’s what they say, but you might think otherwise when you hear exchanges like the one heard at a recent climate change workgroup meeting.

Testy Exchanges

Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican Rep. Shelly Short tangled over state targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Now I’ve heard two members of these committees to see it’s really not that important to meet those targets. And I think it’s going to be difficult,” said Inslee.  

“No, no, no, you started this fight,” said Short.

“Representative, excuse me for just a moment,” said Inslee.

“You started this fight,” said Short.

“Just excuse me this moment,” said Inslee.

Missing: ‘Commitment to Compromise’

The tension in the room was in stark contrast to last month when Washington lawmakers and the governor set aside their partisan differences to approve nearly $9 billion in tax incentives aimed at landing Boeing’s 777X assembly line.

Chris Vance, a former Republican state lawmaker and past chair of the Washington State Republican Party, views the Boeing kumbaya moment as an aberration.

“The main thing that I see missing in Olympia and even worse in Washington, D.C. is a commitment to compromise,” said Vance.

Consider the protracted budget negotiations in Olympia earlier this year that led to two overtime sessions. 

“There are times when you have to go into the room with the other party and say, ‘We’re not leaving here without a deal. We’re going to get the best deal we can, but if we have to we’re going to compromise and give up some things we really believe in because we have to make a deal on this,’” Vance said.

In the end, that’s what happened. But it took the threat of an imminent government shutdown to finally hammer out a deal.

Disagreements over Transportation Bill  

Still, House budget chair Ross Hunter, a Democrat, rejects the suggestion Olympia is broken.

“We actually talk to each other, like, in rooms, not just the beltway or whatever they do in D.C. And yeah, it took forever,” Hunter said.

But Hunter believes the proof is in the product, not the process. He notes the final budget won hefty bipartisan support.

Now a similar drama is playing out over a proposed multi-billion dollar gas tax package. Boeing says this is one of its must-haves if it’s going to build the 777X here. The governor uses his bully pulpit to pound home the transportation funding message every chance he gets.

“I’ve been pushing for this since my first day as governor and now we know it is an essential piece of our aerospace future, as well as the broader economic future of the state of Washington,” he said.

Negotiations have bogged down over disagreements about transit funding levels and what the Senate majority coalition caucus calls “transportation reforms.” That coalition is a group of 24 Republicans and two breakaway Democrats who took control of the Washington Senate last January.

Republican Curtis King co-chairs the senate transportation committee. Here’s how he summed up the state of negotiations when I asked him recently on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program: “I think we’re not that far apart, to be honest with you. It’s a matter of a few things here and there, but they’re kind of major things.”

The fact it’s taking a while for Democrats and Republicans to negotiate past their differences is no surprise to Republican Dan Evans, a former governor.

“Big issues of the day don’t succumb to quick answers,” he said.

Evans says as long as the two sides are actively negotiating, that’s not D.C.-style gridlock.

“I’m not feeling any despair over the lack of a transportation package at the moment. I would be at the end of the legislative session if they haven’t come up with one,” he said.

Gov: Funding Public Ed = Like Climbing Mt. Everest

There’s another multi-billion dollar challenge. The Washington Legislature is under court order to amply fund public education. This year, lawmakers made an initial down payment on that ruling. But they still have to come up with another $4 billion to $5 billion over the next two budget cycles.

The governor likened it to climbing Mt. Everest, one step at a time.

“Well I think getting to adequate funding for our school is going to be a multi-year challenge,” said Inslee.

He said he’ll be back in 2015 with fresh proposals to eliminate what he calls “unproductive tax loopholes.

“So that’s the next step, and we hope that the majority caucus will help in that effort,” said Inslee.

Republican Steve Litzow, who chairs the senate education committee, doesn’t reject Inslee’s call to eliminate some tax exemptions.

“I agree with the governor. it’s going to be a multi-year process,” he said. “But that’s going to be a combination of money and reform in the system.”

“Reforms before revenue”—that’s become a Republican mantra around the Capitol. Washington lawmakers return to the Capitol for a short 60-day election year session next month. The very fact elections are looming will likely harden, not mel, the partisan ice.