Silent Session

by George Howland

Even when Democrats accomplish something positive, they do a poor job of letting the public know. This week, lawmakers wrapped up the first budget writing session since 1993 during which Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's mansion. In the past three months, legislators passed a $26 billion biennial budget for 2005-07, an $8.5 billion transportation package and important legislation for major Democratic constituencies including teachers, unions, environmentalists and social-service advocates. They did it without a general tax increase, and they did it on time -- ending the regular 105-day session on April 24.

Yet some Dems inside and outside the Capitol are dissatisfied, thinking they missed an opportunity to make bold and visionary changes. Other Democrats contend that the public doesn't want sweeping change but is more comfortable with incremental progress. Both camps agree, however, that as Democrats they failed to communicate effectively the progress they did make toward key goals in education, health care, the environment and the economy. The lack of message might leave them vulnerable to Republican charges that the D's don't do anything but raise taxes and increase the size of government.

This year's $26 billion biennial budget, which goes into effect July 1, has things to hate and things to love. On the positive side, Gov. Chris Gregoire and legislators showed courage by passing a new estate tax to replace the one tossed out by the state Supreme Court in February. The estate tax is an important, progressive measure in Washington's revenue toolbox. Since it is only levied on estates of $1.5 million or more in the next biennium and $2 million or bigger estates thereafter, it burdens only the rich, taxing around 250 estates annually. The sales tax, in contrast, disproportionately burdens the poor. While not the revenue-generator that is the sales tax, the estate tax raises $138 million over the next two years.

Lawmakers also wisely increased cigarette taxes by 60 cents a pack. That not only raises $174 million but also drives down the state's health care costs by discouraging smoking. The new taxes enabled lawmakers to pay for important education mandates by ballot measures like Initiative 728, which sought to reduce class sizes, and Initiative 732, to increase teacher pay. Legislators also spent $150 million to boost enrollment by 7,900 students at community colleges and state universities -- a vital investment in the state's future. In the social services arena, legislators and the governor will add health insurance for more than 40,000 more poor children in the next two years, and they will pick up the cost of treating 43,000 low-income, mentally ill Washingtonians who were dropped by the federal government. State House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, can proudly point to this list and say, "It's hard to argue with our priorities, because they are the priorities of the public."

At the same time, the budget is full of unsustainable gimmickry that ensures that lawmakers will be staring at another deficit of around $1 billion in the 2007-09 biennium. While there are around $565 million in real cuts and $400 million in new taxes, there is $454 million in one-time savings, fund surplus transfers and delayed pension payments that cannot be exploited again. State costs are rising faster than revenue, and Democrats aren't doing anything to address that fundamental problem. Phil Talmadge, a former state Senator and state Supreme Court Justice, says of the budget: "They have created some enormous problems for themselves."

But not immediate ones. Democrats served all of their key constituency groups by either passing good legislation or spilling blood in an effort to do so. Labor unions got a key reform of the state's unemployment insurance system that will provide $52 million in benefits to 150,000 Washington workers who are employed seasonally, such as construction workers, while reducing all unemployment payments by a little. Environmentalists did especially well. Washington became the second state in the nation to adopt strict car-emission standards (though there are legal problems with the new law) and the first state to set environmental standards for public buildings. Lawmakers also approved an ambitious cleanup of Hood Canal and tried to encourage the use of solar power with tax breaks for companies and individuals.

Education advocates received the highest amount ever -- more than $600 million -- for school construction, in addition to the aforementioned class-size and teacher-pay budget items. Similarly, social service advocates were pleased by the reforms aimed at making prescription drugs more affordable through bulk purchasing and budget appropriation. Big business lobbied hard for the $8.5 billion transportation package because it believes it is essential to the economic health of the region, and Democrats delivered most of the votes to pass it. Even conservatives found something to love in the performance-audit bill that Chopp hopes will improve government accountability. "We have clear accomplishments," says the Speaker.

Even groups that did not score big wins can see the blood left on the floor for the effort. Senate Democrats fought hard, even employing 11th-hour parliamentary maneuvers, to bring a gay rights bill up for a vote (it failed by just one vote). The House passed the legislation. Choice advocates saw Democrats struggle mightily to pass stem-cell research legislation.

State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, says of the session, however: "The only thing lacking was boldness and vision. There is a great reluctance to tackle big problems." Jacobsen says that the Legislature is cautious because the public has punished boldness in the past. Back in 1993, Democrats enacted a large business tax increase and a massive overhaul of health insurance. The next year, they lost many seats and weren't in full control of Olympia again until this year. That experience was very much on the minds of legislators who were determined not to repeat the mistake. "It's taken us a decade to dig ourselves out of the hole we dug," says state Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle. "We could have overreached, but the leadership in the House and the Senate have shown a lot of restraint. The things we have done will not cause a huge public backlash."

But Talmadge thinks caution is a problem. "Leadership is where you seize the initiative," he says. "You don't have people in the executive or legislative arena who are seizing the initiative. There's not a bold stroke among them." Talmadge contends that if the public does not see leadership from the Democrats, they will look elsewhere to solve the problems that face the state. He believes caution is what led to the rise of tax-rollback-initiative king Tim Eyman during the years of weak leadership by Democratic Gov. Gary Locke. Talmadge shudders to think what is coming next.

Republicans are clearly hopeful the electorate will turn to them -- perhaps as early as this November if there is a new election for governor, pitting former state Sen. Dino Rossi against Gregoire. Throughout the session, Republicans have pounded away with a simple message: Democrats are irresponsibly raising $400 million in new taxes that will hurt the economic recovery. Democrats, in turn, have lacked a message. The logical messenger would be Gregoire, but she is hampered by a couple of things. First, plain-speaking communication does not come naturally to her -- she talks like a lawyer. Second, she has yet to hire key staff, including a director of communications, because the disputed election eliminated her transition period.

House Speaker Chopp and state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, have not filled the breach. Brown is in her first year as majority leader and had the difficult task of managing a small majority -- Democrats only control the Senate by three votes, 26-23. In fact, conservative Democratic senators like state Senators Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, voted with Republicans on gay rights and stem-cell research. Chopp shuns the limelight, preferring to work behind the scenes. He also says it is his preference to wait until legislation is passed to talk about it. "It's always better to talk about what you've done than what you plan to do," he says.

Not all Democrats agree with the Speaker, even in the House. This year, legislators had a group that worked specifically on message and they even hired political consultant Christian Sinderman to work for the Democratic caucus throughout the session on the problem. The effort did not yield much in the way of results. It's not clear why, although Sinderman is not to blame; he always has a catchy message to offer.

Sen. Poulsen says, "We are not communicating the good work we are doing. We need to do a better job of telling our story." Poulsen blames Democrats' penchant for policy details. "We've never been good at putting things in simple terms. We get into the details -- policy wonks. That hurts us in the legislative process and in the campaigns."

Yet the Democrats' difficulty with message during the legislative session is even stranger when considering that Chopp clearly has a feel for how to sell Democratic ideas, accomplishments and candidates in swing districts around the state. Since he took over as the Democratic House leader in 1994, he has picked up 16 seats to build this year's comfortable House majority, 55-43. He says, "I am a great campaigner. I'll let targeted districts know" the Democrats accomplishments. So why not craft an effective message for the general public year round?

The problem, of course, plagues Democrats at the national as well as local level. Maybe it's just in the nature of Democrats to go off in their own directions rather than follow a script handed down from the top.

George Howland is political editor of Seattle Weekly, where this story first appeared.

Publication date: 05/05/05