The New Year Agenda

In Olympia, Democratic leaders resolve to combine 'kitchen table' issues, like education and jobs, with fiscal prudence. It's an election year, after all.

In advance of this year’s legislative session, which begins Monday, Jan. 9, lawmakers are talking up new, tough penalties on sex offenders and the necessity of maintaining budget discipline. What happened? Aren’t the Democrats still in charge of state government?

It’s an election year. Yes, the Democrats are still in control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state Legislature, but they don’t want the voting public to think they are weak-kneed, spendthrift liberals. This year’s legislative session is short, just 60 days, and in November all members of the state House (currently controlled by the Democrats 55-43) and half the members of the state Senate (controlled 26-23 by the Dems) are facing re-election. Democrats are already looking ahead to the election, anticipating that Republicans will attack them for raising taxes, increasing government spending, and failing to keep children safe from criminals. Democratic leaders want to hit back by promoting themselves as guardians of public safety and the public purse who invest wisely in the state’s future. They’ll be blasting the Republicans for failing to support “kitchen table” issues— education, health, and jobs. It’s a tough balancing act for Gov. Christine Gregoire, state House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, but all three leaders seem to be reading from the same playbook, even if they are on slightly different pages.

This year, Gregoire actually has an opportunity to prepare and advance a legislative agenda. Last year, the state was embroiled in the bitter gubernatorial election controversy between Gregoire and her Republican opponent, former state Sen. Dino Rossi of Sammamish. The brouhaha clearly damaged Gregoire’s public approval ratings, which have languished throughout 2005 according to a series of public opinion polls by Survey USA, a firm that works for TV stations around the country including KING-TV. In Survey USA’s latest poll, on Dec. 20, 2005, Gregoire’s approval rating was at 43 percent, ranking her 39th out of 50 governors in home state popularity.

Gregoire has shaken up her staff—her communications director and political director have both left—and she is undergoing a makeover. Gregoire’s public image has suffered from being fuzzy—people don’t know what she stands for. She’s also seen as personally cold. Warm and fuzzy, of course, works better, and she’s presenting her legislative agenda for 2006 in a clearer, more media-friendly fashion. Her press conference about Puget Sound cleanup on Monday, Dec. 20, was a veritable love-in, with Gregoire beaming from the podium and hugging and kissing the other politicians around her.

That press conference also illustrated how Gregoire is framing her approach to government: activist, but not expensive. In November, the federal government designated three families of Puget Sound orcas as endangered species, raising the profile of the Sound’s declining health. Gregoire says 38 of the Sound’s species are in trouble and that a cleanup partnership with local, state, and federal governments as well as the private sector has to begin. To kick off that effort, she is proposing $42 million in new state spending for the Sound, but she stressed only $500,000 would come from the state’s general tax fund. Most of the work would be paid for with existing revenue from taxes on oil and toxic chemicals. Even $42 million, however, is just a fraction of what is needed.

On Monday, Dec. 12, Gregoire appeared at Seattle’s Wing Luke Elementary School—soften that image!—to promote her early-childhood education initiative. She is creating a new Cabinet level agency to promote early learning. Again, the initial cost is cheap to the state’s taxpayers, $1.5 million, but the goal is ambitious and clearly aimed at the voters’ kitchen table: to encourage the idea of public education before kindergarten. The governor has not addressed how that would be paid for in the long run.

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, Gregoire was in Yakima pushing her goal of energy independence. She has worked hard to promote ideas that could benefit both sides of the Cascade curtain. This year, she is lobbying hard for a small, one-time $18 million investment in equipment that will make it more viable for farmers to grow oil-seed crops for biodiesel production. Republicans, Democrats, farmers, and greens all love the idea (see “Clean Energy Frenzy,” Dec. 14, 2005). Again, some agricultural specialists believe the state’s limited help will be insufficient to create viable oil-crop farming in Washington.

The most important goal for Gregoire during this year’s legislative session, however, is exercising some degree of fiscal restraint. She hopes to keep much of the state’s projected $1.4 billion surplus in reserve. She has proposed around $500 million in new spending in a supplemental budget that will augment the $26 billion biennial budget passed last year. Most of the new spending is going for increased caseloads in social services, higher health care costs, bigger enrollments in public schools, and voter-approved increases in teacher pay. “We need to pay the bills and save the rest,” she says. “The economy in the state is cyclical. You need to exercise fiscal responsibility. We will do some strategic investments, [but] we are holding government accountable for every penny we spend.”

State House Speaker Frank Chopp wants this year’s supplemental budget to reflect his ongoing “kitchen table” priorities—jobs, health, and education. He likes the economic development aspect of the biodiesel proposals and supports increased spending to give more poor children health insurance, but the most important proposals for him this year are about education. He notes that the Seattle delegation worked very hard and accomplished fantastic things last year with the passage of the $8.5 billion transportation package that was subsequently upheld by the voters with the defeat of Initiative 912 in November. Now he wants the same kind of results on education from preschool through community college. “We have to remember that our primary duty is in education,” says Chopp, referring to language in the state constitution. Since this year is a short session, Chopp doesn’t have ambitious plans but wants to pass the Gregoire- endorsed $39 million in new spending to help kids pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Passing the standardized test will be required for high-school graduation beginning in 2008, but students around the state are finding it very difficult (see “The Stress Test,” Nov. 23, 2005). “We want to maintain high standards but give students some help,” says Chopp.

Chopp’s caucus will also be promoting tougher measures for sex offenders. When it comes to crime, he likes to remind folks he’s not your typical Seattle liberal but comes from a working-class background. “I’m from East Bremerton,” Chopp says. “Increase the penalties on sex offenders who offend against kids.” House Criminal Justice Committee Chair Al O’Brien, D–Mountlake Terrace, has responded to the high-profile case involving Washington sex offender Joseph E. Duncan III, who is accused of murder and kidnapping in Idaho. O’Brien wants to use GPS devices to monitor the whereabouts of sex offenders who claim to be homeless and increase the penalties for sex offenders who commit crimes against children. “We have to put them away for a long, long time,” says O’Brien, a former police officer. Not all of the House Democratic caucus will be enthusiastic about all the measures, but something is likely to pass.

The state Senate’s majority leader, Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, also sounds a note of caution about new sex-offender laws. “We want to do things that work, not just things that sound good,” she says. Brown mentions the complexity of changing laws—whether concerning criminal justice or health insurance or the WASL—repeatedly. She emphasizes how much the Democrats accomplished in last year’s session—over 500 new laws passed, including ambitious measures on mental-health parity, cleaner cars, green buildings, and providing health insurance for tens of thousands of poor children. “Most things can wait until next session. We had a very ambitious session last year. I’d like people to take stock of what we did and take more time to communicate with the public about it.” That said, Brown supports the aforementioned initiatives in education and clean energy as well as the governor’s approach to the budget.

Senate Transportation Committee Vice Chair Erik Poulsen, D–West Seattle, says regional transportation reform cannot wait until next session. He is part of a leadership team including House Transportation Committee Chair Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Senate Transportation Committee Chair Mary Margaret Haugen, D–Camano Island, which will push very hard to kill the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID). When Republicans controlled the Senate, they created the RTID as a mechanism for voters in Pierce, Snohomish, and King counties to fund highways in the region. Many projects, including the replacements of the unsafe Seattle waterfront Alaskan Way Viaduct and Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington, need money from regional taxpayers in order to be completed. Democratic leaders, however, believe RTID puts too much emphasis on highways at the expense of transit, and isolates the funding aspect of transportation governance from the planning component. They want to create a new regional transportation government, like Portland’s Metro, that will bring roads, transit, planning, and funding together. Poulsen admits it’s very ambitious. “New transportation governance isn’t a slam dunk,” he says, but “sometimes some of the biggest stuff happens in the short session.”

Republicans say the biggest thing happening is that Democrats are already behaving badly and the session hasn’t even started. State Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgeway, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, says Gregoire’s budget is a travesty. “She punts the problems until next year, fails to fully fund the pension system, and still manages spending increases we haven’t seen since the [Gov. Mike] Lowry administration,” says Zarelli. While Republicans can’t do much about their fiscal concerns in the state House, they have a few conservative Democratic allies in the Senate who might make trouble for even the moderate increases in spending Gregoire wants. It seems unlikely, however, that they will be able to pass any of their own agenda—such as eliminating the state’s estate tax on the wealthiest Washingtonians.

While there will be furious debates in Olympia—watch out if the state’s gay- marriage ban is ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court—it will be hard to tell who actually won until the election results are finalized next November. Until then, the Democrats are likely to advance a modest agenda this year, in hopes that the voters will trust them—and the economy will allow them—to become more expansive in the 2007 legislative session.