by George Howland Jr.
State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, tells a great shaggy-dog story to predict the atmosphere of the upcoming Legislature's 2004 session. A well-meaning rookie arrives in Olympia with some complicated, innovative piece of legislation that he proposed on the campaign trail. He shows it to a member of the Legislature's leadership. "Great stuff, kid," the leader says, "but it will have to wait until next year -- this year we write the budget." The next year arrives and the rookie buttonholes the leader again to ask about his legislation. "Kid, we can't do that this year. Don't you know it's an election year?"
Nearly all legislators, Democrats or Republicans, dry-siders or wet-siders, say they hope to keep the 2004 legislative session short. There isn't a lot that has to be done, and this year is not only an election year, it's a presidential election year, with all the constitutional offices, from the governor on down, and all the members of the state House of Representatives and half the members of the state Senate, on the ballot.
Somebody needs to let Gov. Gary Locke know. Locke, a lame duck, is preparing to propose some of the most ambitious programs of his two terms as the state's chief executive, involving billions of dollars of new programs. As lawmakers convened on Monday, Locke was backing the Education Trust Fund, known as P-16 (preschool through four years of college) initiative, which might propose a 1 percent sales-tax increase to raise $1 billion annually for education. He is also poised to launch Bio21, a research fund for the biotechnology industry. His task force is recommending spending $250 million over five years to pay for the research. Legislators from both parties say it's unlikely that such ambitious measures will be enacted in this year's short session.
Meanwhile, since the federal courts have struck down Washington's blanket primary, the Legislature must decide whether to create a new way to hold primary elections before leaving town. Add in a business lobby feeling giddy from its successes last year and anxious to reform the state's worker's compensation system, and the session might run a little longer than legislators would like.
Trust in Education -- Blair Butterworth, Locke's longtime political advisor and an education activist, says that two years ago, the governor asked the League of Education Voters to begin exploring how to boost education funding. Butterworth says Locke felt the conversation had to start outside Olympia to break down the "silos" that separate parts of the educational system in the Legislature.
"If you want to do something of this scale and ambition," says Butterworth, "you don't do it in Olympia."
The league hopes to have the details worked out in the next few weeks, and then the governor will present the package to the Legislature. If the governor is not successful with lawmakers, Locke expects the measure to become an initiative and be put to vote of the people, says Roger Nyhus, his spokesman.
While Nyhus and Butterworth are loath to reveal details, legislators of both parties, including state House Appropriations Chair Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, and state Senate Ways and Means Chair Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, say they have heard the general outline of a plan: The most likely funding mechanism is the flat 1 percent sales-tax increase that would generate $1 billion per year. How that money would be divvied up is still very much under discussion.
Sommers likes the idea. "Our taxes have been cut considerably in the last decade," she points out. Zarelli thinks it's a non-starter for his caucus. "It's not the right time for new taxes," he says.
Boost for Biotech -- While biotech fever has been raging in Seattle due to billionaire Paul Allen's efforts in the South Lake Union neighborhood, and while some civic leaders in Spokane see health care research as a panacea, the fervor hasn't really spread to Olympia yet. Locke and industry leaders hope to see that change when the governor puts forward his proposal for funding biotech research. The competition for the biotech industry around the country is very intense, with states offering multimillion-dollar incentives and tax breaks to attract the anticipated big industry of the 21st century. To rise to national prominence in the biotech industry, Washington has up to now relied on quality of life, the leadership of the University of Washington's medical school and local billionaires.
"The state is among the lowest in terms of R & amp;D investment," notes Nyhus. "We want Washington to be a center for biotech excellence." He would not release any specific proposals, however.
State Senate Floor Leader Luke Esser, R-Bellevue, who serves on the steering committee that is preparing recommendations for the governor, says the group is looking at a $250 million, five-year package. Esser says biotech researchers would be required to have two dollars in private money for each dollar of state funding they applied for. The steering committee favors using tobacco-settlement money to fund the program.
Senate Minority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, is surprised to hear that Bio 21 might try to tap tobacco funds. "We are one of the few states that has remained true to using that money for health care," she says.
Primarily New Elections -- While it is an election year, nobody knows what form the state's primary elections will take. In response to a lawsuit brought by the state Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has declared the state's "blanket" primary system unconstitutional. Legislators, who have all been elected under the blanket primary, in which voters are presented one ballot with nominees from all parties and can mix and match at will, are unhappy about the parties using the courts to force a change.
The political parties are now pushing the Legislature to adopt a closed system, in which only registered party members would be allowed to vote for that party's primary candidates. The parties prefer a "closed" system because it eliminates mischievous crossover voters from members of rival political parties and provides thousands of names of potential donors and partisans to target in future elections.
A couple of alternative election methods are circulating in the Legislature: the "Cajun" primary, in which the top two vote-getters in the primary advance, regardless of party affiliation; and the "Montana" primary, where voters must choose a ballot of only one party but do so on election day, and no record of their choice is kept.
State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, chairs the Government Operations and Elections Committee and will be a key player in the debate.
"The Legislature should do what the people want them to do," Roach says, "which might be contrary to what the parties want them to do."
If the Legislature cannot reach agreement on the subject, and everyone admits that is a good possibility, it is not clear what will happen.
An Injury to One... -- Last year, the state's business lobby had one of the best years in recent memory as it won $3.2 billion in tax breaks and other incentives for Boeing and an overhaul of the state's unemployment system.
"They just rolled us," admits David Groves, spokesman for the Washington State Labor Council.
This year, lobbies from the mainstream Association of Washington Business to the radical Building Industry Association of Washington are howling that the workers' comp system needs a major makeover.
Business groups are particularly upset that the state Department of Labor and Industry, which runs the workers' comp program, will increase rates 9.8 percent next year after already increasing them 29 percent last year.
Senate Minority Leader Brown says rates were increased sharply in recent years because of huge rebates and rate cuts during the boom years of the 1990s. Overall, she claims, 30 states charge more for workers' comp than Washington, and the state's rates have only gone up 7 percent since 1994.
According to state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, the current system is too complicated and responds to workers' injuries case by case, working closely with medical professionals.
"We can find a system that works better," he says. He'd prefer a flat fee paid to injured workers.
Groves responds: "When it comes to simplifying the system, that's all well and good, but usually there is an ulterior motive: reducing employer costs or reducing benefits for injured workers."
Given the ambition of the governor's proposals, the complexity of the electoral and economic issues, and the high emotions surrounding all of it, this year's legislative session might turn out to be memorable despite its proximity to the ballot box.
George Howland Jr. is political editor of Seattle Weekly, where this story first appeared.
Publication date: 1/15/04