With a Budget in Sight, What Did Olympia’s Turncoat Democrats Really Win?

“I think we’ve had a very successful session,” says Tim Sheldon, one of two state Senate Democrats who famously turned their back on their party this year to join with Republicans and stage a coup.

Really?

While Governor Jay Inslee just announced a “breakthrough” in budget negotiations—one he refused to provide details about-- the legislature has allowed the state to come a week away from a shutdown. Even if a deal is reached today, one might argue that the prolonged stasis—taking the legislature deep into a second special session—has made the year in Olympia a screaming failure.

From the point of view of the majority coalition caucus—formed by Sheldon, fellow Democrat Rodney Tom and Senate Republicans—there’s reason for chagrin too. Many of the reforms caucus members touted as their top priorities hit a brick wall when they got to the Democrat-controlled House. That includes initiatives aimed at making education more “accountable,” which caucus members insisted was a necessary counterbalance to giving schools more money as demanded by the McCleary court decision.

A rare exception was a bill that targeted failing schools and made it through both chambers. But the measure, which once called for a state takeover of those schools, was extensively watered down, so that now it merely calls for state-monitored improvement plans.

Sheldon’s positive spin rests upon a couple of premises. One is that the “majority coalition caucus” he formed with fellow Democrat Rodney Tom and Senate Republicans has beaten back the tax increases that mainstream Democrats otherwise would have pushed through. While we’ve yet to see the final details of the budget, it’s pretty clear that’s the case.

Sen. Ed Murray, the Seattle mayoral hopeful and Senate Democrat deposed as majority leader by Tom after the coup, asserts that “there has been new revenue” enacted--or reenacted. On a technicality, the state Supreme Court had thrown out a tax legislators had previously imposed on wealthy estates, and a battle ensued over whether to pass the tax again. Democrats, who wanted to do so, won that one. Even so, Murray admits that the new revenue, overall, “is not as much as Democrats wanted.”

And they would have almost certainly gotten what they wanted if Tom and Sheldon hadn’t joined forces with Republicans. Democrats would have then controlled the Senate, the House and the gubernatorial seat. A triple whammy. In this sense, you can certainly see why Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat proclaimed Tom “the big winner of the year so far in state politics.” (Tom, as majority leader, tends to get more attention than Sheldon, who Democrats long ago dismissed as an unfaithful member of the tribe.)

But whether the majority coalition’s win on taxes overshadows all else is an open question. Certainly, the voters might not see it that way.

Sheldon says he doesn’t think the Olympia gridlock we’ve endured will spark a voter backlash come November. That’s because an actual shutdown won’t happen, he contends. And Inslee’s announcement seems to show he’s right about that.

Yet, the partisan gamesmanship of the session leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Who’s to blame depends on who you talk to, naturally. Each side accuses the other of refusing to negotiate in good faith.

It’s worth noting, however, that the majority coalition was supposed to be about bipartisanship, with members of both parties coming together around core ideas. Aside from the newfound love affair between Republicans and the Senate’s two dissident Democrats, that didn’t happen. In fact, the session is likely to go down in history as one of the most partisan ever.

 
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