Locke 'n' roll

Fresh from electoral triumph, a new and slightly scary Governor Gary.

FOR MOST OF HIS first term, the media pretty much got away with tagging Gary Locke as timid, indecisive, unwilling, or unable to lead. His big November win over lackluster Republican competitor John Carlson seems to have empowered the governor—or one of his speechwriters—to take decisive issue with that image.

The Gary Locke unveiled in last Wednesday's State of the State address is a tough guy, a no-nonsense guy who will take no guff from anyone in his determination to provide "the ingredients for prosperity in this new century: a transportation system that works, an education system that enriches every child, enough water and energy to meet the needs of our people and our industries—the basics."

The old 1996-2000 model Locke wasn't nearly as passive and underpowered as often caricatured; in his plodding, unglamorous way, he made good on his pledge to halt the slide in state educational standards. With a secure floor under state expenditures for teacher salaries and classroom space (mandated by the voters in a battery of November initiatives), Locke can concentrate his energies on a pet project, educational "deregulation."

By abolishing the state's archaic and cumbersome education code, the governor hopes to free school districts around the state to devise programs, incentives, and standards to modernize instruction, raise teaching standards, and liberalize hiring so that "if a Microsoft retiree wants to teach math, she [can] do so without going back to college for a teaching degree" (Locke's example, not mine). And having helped the state's powerful teachers' unions get voter approval for Initiative 732 that guarantees school employees annual cost-of-living salary increases, Locke hopes to procure the unions' acquiescence to his peeling away some of their protective armor as embodied in the code.

A similar calculation lies behind Locke's sudden espousal of water-rights reform. State inflexibility on the use of water was already a hot issue in rural areas when Dan Evans was governor a quarter-century ago. Although some lines from Locke's Wednesday address were as plangent as country-and-western lyrics ("We want cool, clear water for our families and fish"), his getting the old-time water-rights religion probably has less to do with heart than head. The state Department of Ecology, on his watch and under his direction, has come up with a body of regulations for water use, wetlands, and shorelines that reduces rural constituencies of both parties to frothing incoherence. By giving a little (or a lot) to rural legislators on water, Locke can pick up some desperately needed votes for the riskiest item on his legislative agenda for 2001: an off-budget transportation improvement plan that, if carried to completion, could cost nearly $10 billion over the next six years.

Washingtonians, pretty much wherever they live, are exercised about traffic congestion. (House Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard was probably only half-joking when he complained two weeks ago that at one intersection in his hometown of West Wenatchee, he sometimes has to wait through two whole cycles of the light.) But the fact is serious congestion by definition occurs in congested areas, and in Washington that means (aside from a few notorious bottlenecks elsewhere) the heavily populated and suburbanized south end and midsection of the I-5 corridor.

It was already clear when Locke was running for governor in 1996 that improvements in the state's transportation system were direly needed, but he still got slammed by political rivals and the press for proposing a hike in gasoline taxes to pay for them. Small wonder that this time around the gov is demanding the Legislature commit to a transportation funding plan to submit to the voters as a referendum, and has plans to demonstrate that commitment by changing the structure of the sprawling, ungovernable Department of Transportation to bring it under his direct responsibility.

A pledge to do something, anything, about the late-breaking issue of soaring electric power costs completes Locke's mantra of schools and water, power and roads. Decisive measures for dealing with all four were clearly if broadly outlined in last week's address. Just as clear was Locke's threat to keep the Legislature in session as long as it takes to ratify a transportation plan—and, by implication, the rest of his program as well.

Barely grazed in the address was another issue: where the money's coming from to cover the day-to-day cost of keeping the state in operation. As long as a year ago, it was clear that the state was headed into serious fiscal trouble. In a January 2000 study for the University of Washington's nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Center, Christopher Haugen painted a devastating portrait of the combined impacts of initiative-mandated revenue cuts and higher expenses due to cost-of-living raises and inflation. And Haugen's report reckoned that without the additional revenue shocks mandated by November's crop of successful new initiatives.

To bring his proposed budget for 2001-2003 into balance, Locke proposes further radical cuts in some expenditure areas, primarily programs administered by the department of Social and Health Services. Given the severity of cuts in the same areas in previous bienniums, the gov may not find it easy to persuade the less hard-nosed among legislators of his own party to go along.

In addition, even with those cuts, the Locke budget requires spending half the state's billion-dollar "rainy-day" reserve. Conservative Republicans are not the only people who oppose a raid on what is intended to be a cushion against unexpected fiscal catastrophe, not a drawing account to cover current operations.

You can cheer for a Gary Locke ready to twist a few arms and go to the mat for his priorities and principles. What's a little troubling is growing evidence about just what they might be.

In particular, one passage in last week's address casts a disturbing light on what Locke claims he's learned from four years in office, during which "I've traveled our state from corner to corner": "I've met people thrilled to be off welfare. . . . I've seen children beaming because [they] are now great readers . . . young adults, the first in their families to go to college . . . young parents who now have low-cost health insurance." There's no evidence that he's seen anyone in his travels who hasn't benefited from four years of Locke: no panhandlers at freeway off-ramps, no homeless people outside a shelter hoping for a bed, no braceros bunking down on the ground among the trees, no walking wounded wandering the streets because a treatment program that might have moderated their distress was defunded. Locke's budget is foursquare on the side of "the basics": transportation, education, water, and energy. Ex-basics like food and lodging seem to be forgotten.

 
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