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Olympia blues 

by Jerry Hughes


Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep It's own appointed limits keep O, hear us when we cry to Thee For those in peril on the sea!


-- William Whiting, "The Naval Hymn"





Among themselves, members of the Washington State Legislature, both Republicans and Democrats, have frequently been referencing the current legislative session as The Perfect Storm of politics. If this is the case, let us hope that we fare better than the ill-fated Andrea Gale. The dangers that are looming ominously port and starboard, fore and aft, rise out of a troubled sea of unaddressed issues, postponed decisions and myopic mismanagement. The current governmental course seems bent on speeding the good ship Olympia ever closer to a fateful rendezvous with stark political reality.


The State of Washington is timidly tacking on a path wrought with droughts, both fiscal and natural. Our mass transportation systems have proven to be wholly inadequate. Health care is approaching a state of near catastrophe. On the horizon, blackouts and rocketing utility prices have the very real potential of driving the current free falling economy into a deep recession. Initiative-driven micro-mismanagement -- the pungent product of the iconoclast imagination of the state's most infamous political wannabe, Tim Eyman -- has hamstrung legislative authority. Washington State's public education system continues to eagerly promote in-house cosmetic reforms while measurable learning levels sink ever lower. The Boeing Company, our self-appointed "Good Neighbor," has callously announced that it is moving its corporate headquarters out of state -- taking with it an unknown number of jobs. Lastly, the Ash Wednesday Earthquake has left our ship of state and its captain and crew battered and scurrying for safe harbors.


April 22 , 2001 is the constitutionally mandated date for sine die -- the day that the legislature must legally adjourn. Due to the substantial philosophical differences between the current House, Senate and gubernatorial versions of the biannual budget, Governor Gary Locke may have to call the almost perfectly partitioned State Legislature back into a special session. As with his recent chief executive predecessors, Locke will probably point the fickle finger of blame at the legislature. In truth, culpability can be accurately attached to a multitude of suspects.


Since the conclusion of Dan Evans' second term as governor (his third term was noticeably absent the earlier exercises of vision and leadership), the Evergreen State has not witnessed a chief executive effectively exercising seasoned stewardship. A capsule summary is offered here: Gov. Dixie Lee Ray was a highly intelligent woman who generally operated as a confrontational besieged potentate; Gov. John Spellman, a gentle soul, was driven to indecision and distraction by destructive forces within his own political party; Gov. Booth Gardner, a man of limited talents, governed as a proverbial deer caught in the headlights; Gov. Mike Lowry, a man tormented by personal political demons, was ultimately driven from office; and finally we have Gary Locke, an affable man but not a leader noted for his decisiveness or vision.


Locke, like Evans, Gardner and Lowry but unlike Ray and Spellman, has the seeming advantage of having served in the state's legislative branch. Unfortunately, this prior experience has apparently failed to adequately equip him with some of the fundamental prerequisites of leadership. The words most often repeated by legislators, reporters and informed observers in describing the current resident of the governor's mansion are "overly cautious," "lacking in vision," "unwilling to risk his own political capital" and "a contemplative, not an instinctive leader." In truth, it has been a very long time since our storm-tossed ship of state has been well captained.


The evenly split House of Representatives (49 Republicans and 49 Democrats) is directed by co-Speakers Clyde Ballard (R) and Frank Chopp (D). The nearly equally divided Senate (25 Democrats and 24 Republicans) is led by Majority Leader Sid Snyder (D). These three good men have unfortunately also failed to successfully navigate their respective chambers. It would not be wholly inaccurate to suggest that our recent state legislatures have similarly experienced a dramatic decline in the skill levels of their membership. Persons of the political pedigree of Duane Berentson, Al Bauer, Bud Pardini, Mary Kay Becker, Dennis Heck, Sid Morrision, Jim McDermott, George Clark, Phil Talmadge, John Jones and Helen Sommers simply are not found in comparable numbers in the 2001 State House or Senate. This should not be too surprising, for it comfortably dovetails onto a clear national trend toward mediocrity in government. In all fairness, it should be noted that at least two contemporary legislators, Sen. Lisa Brown and Rep. Jeff Gombosky, clearly possess the necessary skills to leave substantive legislative marks.


Brown, as Senate Appropriations Chair, has already experienced a shot across her ship's bow by Locke's lightly veiled threat of an executive veto unless educational funding levels are restored to his proposed budget levels. Unfortunately, Brown and Gombosky are a rare breed amid the crew types onboard the Olympia. Both the governor and the legislature have fundamentally failed to address the state's most pressing problems. Earlier it was noted that our ship of governance has not been noticeably well captained -- neither has she been particularly well crewed.


Assuming that the same reactive vs. proactive political decision-making that has characterized the state's executive and legislative branches does triumph over the best efforts of the select few enlightened legislators, one can assume there will have to be a special session. The eventual state budget that emerges will likely be a seriously compromised political patchwork of temporary quick fixes. The health care crisis, natural resources protection, alternative energy and conservation programs, educational accountability and long-needed innovative governmental reforms will lack adequate proper redress from this timid legislative session. The final state transportation budget likely will resemble a hodge-podge of maintenance programs, irresponsibly ignoring the critical needs for the development of meaningful mass transit. Funding even for the narrowly focused freeway frenzy formulas will ultimately rest on a series of referendum tax options. Buck passing, it should be noted, now passes for tough, enlightened decision making. Dumb down standards and platitudes of public placation will continue to be substituted for the challenging goal of education excellence.


The tone of this commentary has been critical, and the prognostications are pessimistic. Pray that they are in error. For if they are accurate, we may soon have to reluctantly reap the political whirlwinds. Most assuredly, the skills of the Olympia's captain and crew will be measured by the oncoming surging seas of crisis.





Jerry Hughes served in the Washington State Legislature in the 1980s. Now he is a professor of government at Gonzaga University.

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