Chaotic, bloody, fierce, deadly, ugly. It's being described in terms usually saved for wars. But this is not Bosnia -- it's the 2001 session of the Washington State Legislature; a take-no-prisoners civil conflict that starts this week in Olympia where everybody gets hurt, no one escapes unscathed and nothing the public understands or cares about will get done.
On Jan. 8, the feuding armies and their generals will assemble: Governor Gary Locke, 98 members of the state House of Representatives, 50 elected state senators, battalions of staff, a platoon of paid lobbyists, too few citizen activists and hardly any just regular folks.
The first shots fired will be prayerful and high-minded pledges of bipartisanship which will degrade rapidly into barrages of harsh invective and brutal acts of verbicide.
For a minimum of 105 days, they'll fight it out, and at the end will deliver, at minimum, a budget of around $46 billion that will run state government for the next two years.
Why is this elected assembly expected to be so acrimonious? Why will the production of the state's bratwurst be any less appealing to watch than in the past?
Thanks to the voters, the armies are evenly matched, at least in numbers. Senate Democrats hold a whisker-thin 26-24 majority, though some in the GOP are hopeful for an "ideological majority" in the Senate, with coalitions with conservative Democrats like Tim Sheldon or Jim Hargrove. The House has a frustrating 49-49 split between Democrats and Republicans for the second biennium in a row. That means there's two of everything in leadership -- co-speakers, co-committee chairs, co-points of view that must find a nuanced consensus. Or not.
Democrats' biggest advantage is Governor Gary Locke, who was just reelected by a large margin. But does a 58 percent margin a "mandate" make? Or was it just his new haircut and that he wasn't John Carlson, the conservative Seattle talk-show host who fizzled with such charm?
Locke's $46.3 billion proposed budget takes care of road improvements and answers the voters call for more education dollars, but cuts deeply into social and health programs, which disturbs Democrats. Republicans are huffing and puffing that Locke's budget runs around the voter-approved cap on state spending and failed to mention a way to pay for it, leaving the dirty work to the hapless Legislature.
"Before the process is over," says Spokane's Sen. Lisa Brown, "the governor has got to be more explicit."
"I'm incredibly disappointed in the governor," says Spokane's Jim West, the Republican Senate Minority Leader. "It's a lack of leadership."
"Somehow," Brown, a Democrat, laughs, "I don't think when the governor comes out with his plan, Jim West will be waiting to be led."
A boon for Spokane happened in November when Quad Cities' voters (as the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla are now known) threw away tremendous clout for their little district in November by ousting the knowledgeable Senate Ways and Means Chair Veloria Loveland. Her place as chair of the powerful committee was taken by Brown, a capable economist on faculty at Eastern Washington University who has some budget experience.
"It's an ugly budget," says Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder of Long Beach. "It shows how serious the problems are. When we leave, it'll still be an ugly budget -- only a different one."
Budget writers were already facing the toughest job since voters passed the I-601 spending limit in 1993. After approving spending limits, property-tax caps and eliminating the car tabs fees in past years, voters in November further reduced revenue to state and local governments with more property-tax limits and a tax-rollback initiative. At the same time, they mandated automatic cost-of-living raises for 147,000 public school employees and community-college instructors. This'll cost $460 million, and there's pressure to give the same raise to other worthy state workers and vendors -- like prison guards, child-welfare workers and park rangers. Potential cost: $840 million.
Last year, the Legislature used some of the state's budget surplus to give money to local governments to make up for the $750 million lost when Tim Eyman's I-695 eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax, which not only dried up revenue streams dedicated to the locals, but also killed an emergency transportation funding package passed by the people a year earlier.
"Last session, we only provided the cities 53 percent of what they were getting from the state before I-695," says Snyder. "Most of the counties and the smaller cities have used reserves to get by, which are about gone."
Voters also approved a plan that pulls hundreds of millions of new dollars from lottery profits and state reserves to pour into local schools for class-size reduction, longer school days, summer school or whatever local school boards decide. This makes unavailable some $470 million for school construction, tax cuts or for use in a future economic downturn.
Tim Eyman's I-722, the 2 percent limit on annual growth of property tax values, will cost local governments $376 million during the next biennium and $676 million in 2003-05. The tax rollback provision of the initiative is estimated to cost local governments $106 million. Initiative 722 isn't expected to pass constitutional muster, but there's plenty of pressure both inside and out of Olympia for property tax relief.
Eyman, the initiative-wielding populist, is arguably the most successful citizen-activist the state has ever seen. He doesn't need to show up in Olympia; his microwave democracy, or threats thereof, hog the agenda -- putting legislators between the dog and the hydrant, making the Governor jump like a trained pinniped.
Next on Eyman's tax-cutting agenda: an initiative requiring a vote to raise taxes when local governments impose them and an initiative limiting the growth of state tax revenue to the rate of inflation, with any amounts left over to be returned to the taxpayers as lower property taxes.
Eyman pulled these two initiatives last month when a Seattle group filed suit over language. He needed signatures by Dec. 29 to take the measures to the Legislature this session, but with the lawsuit, he ran out of time.
But Eyman doesn't need to get the signatures. Legislators know that property tax relief is hanging over their heads, and if they want to avoid another raggedy-ass initiative further hamstringing their ability to govern, they must consider the threat of Eyman in their deliberations.
It's true, this has been brought on by viperine legislative gridlock and weak leadership, which voters see as legislative unresponsiveness. But the state GOP can take some blame for these initiatives -- though they complain bitterly off the record about them.
"A republic, not a democracy," is conservative boilerplate, but Republicans gleefully abandoned this principle and joined Eyman's populist hoi polloi encouraging micromanagement of fiscal policies by the voters. Though the constitutionality of most of Eyman's initiatives have been questionable from their whiny beginnings, the GOP hasn't been able to resist a tax cut victory or the chance to be on the winning side of a statewide campaign.
Another flaming bag of dog doo-doo on the doorstep of the 2001 session is primary election reform. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that our 65-year-old system of nominating political party candidates -- known as the "blanket" primary -- is illegal. This means that voters must declare a party affiliation in the primary. Most of us think of ourselves as independent voters and this will piss us off and alienate us even more. The legislature this year must make new rules; it will be partisan, it will be ugly and legislators will be blamed for it all.
Slim majorities like this year are a plague on the effectiveness of a legislative body -- unless you're a libertarian and happy when government does nothing. Being the majority means more than just having more votes than the other guys -- it means you get to set the agenda. Because of the great strength given the majority, it has a tendency to want to move too quickly and blow off the opinions and rights of the minority. So the minority becomes the "whiners of the process," whose role it is to make loud objections and keep the majority honest. It's an unattractive job, but an important one. And one for whom Spokane's outspoken Jim West, Senate Minority Leader is well-suited.
"Bipartisanship is possible," he says. "In the past, the other side didn't need us, so they wrote us off. This year, they need us, so we're looking for cooperation -- we're going to demand it."
"Bipartisanship is essential," says Spokane's 9th District Sen. Larry Sheahan, the Republican Floor Leader this year who provides a soft-spoken foil to West's bluster.
The phrase "transportation plan" has an ugly subtext: "gas tax increase." Locke's Blue Ribbon Commission on transportation mentions one, though the governor won't utter the words. Republicans wish he would so they can beat him over the head with it.
"It's not showing much leadership if he really believes we need a big gas or other tax increase," says Sheahan. "He needs to step up to the plate and say yes, we need to do this, and then we can fight it out."
"Voters want problem-solving government," says Brown. "So I'd like to see less attacks like: 'Why won't the governor lead?' and more: 'How are we going to sit down and get this job done?' "
The tie in the House means that nothing controversial will make it to the floor. Each co-chair has veto-power over whether a bill makes it out of committee. Unfortunately, that may deter legislation not wrapped in the budget that's of interest to Spokane and Eastsiders like hi-tech economic development and localizing water and land use policies.
But it cuts both ways. It eliminates the possibility like in past years of the ultra-right to clog up the process with the reactionary bills that went nowhere: like taking rights away from gay public employees, teachers and parents; eroding of abortion rights; privatizing everything; making English the official language; outlawing public breast feeding, mandating stricter sentencing; weakening the Growth Management Act; or the renaming of Mt. Rainier after the late reactionary Governor Dixie Lee Ray.
What can be done this year?
"We've got to address these initiatives," says Brown. "That we haven't solved these transportation problems for several years has really caught up with us. Solving these in a way that doesn't take the money away from schools and human services is one of our main goals."
West says, "I'd like to get something [transportation-related] to the ballot as quickly as possible -- to save a construction season." He'd also like to change sentencing for sex predators. "Determinate sentencing is actually having a negative impact on us. Very closely supervised parole with mandatory treatment wouldn't be unconstitutional the way the judge suggested it now is. We've got to figure out a way to keep a handle on these guys for a longer period of time."
Sheahan would like to get some tax relief for farmers caught in the bad farm economy. He sees the key to economic development in training and higher education for workers in the new-tech economy.
To the governor's suggestion that the 601 spending cap be breached, the issue breaks down along party lines.
Lisa Brown looks wistful. "Unfortunately, parts of the budget are growing more rapidly than are the spending limits. The 601 level calculates how much you can spend based on population growth and inflation, which is 5.9 percent. But the costs of corrections [prisons, etc.] are going up 11 percent a year. So as that piece grows, what pieces are going to be cut? Public education? Higher ed? Or other human services? We're really involved in healthcare. We've got the medical costs of our employees, university professors and teachers. We pay our share along with the feds for elderly, and Medicaid. We've got our Basic Health Plan for some healthcare for children and the working poor. All of that cost is going up three times as fast as population and inflation. That's significant."
"Our challenge is to operate state government more efficiently," says West. "We haven't even started. All we've done in the last four years is pick the low-hanging fruit."
"I'd say 'government efficiency' is a cheap buzzword," counters Brown. "It's become a euphemism for 'I don't want to tell you what I'm going to cut.' It's clear to anybody who's looked -- we can't do what we have to do without more revenue. You can't make billions of dollars in investments in a six-year transportation plan through efficiencies you're going to find somewhere in government."
Sheahan voices reservations shared by many about spending the reserves. "We need to be very, very careful. Look what happened in the early '70s, early '80s and to some extent in the early '90s -- they spent every single dime available and then, with a downturn in the economy, had to come back the next year and really slash social services, higher education and raise taxes just to balance the budget."
Legislators running for election must make promises or at least give lip service to voters who have delusions about the ability of the Legislature to pass innovative and/or desperately needed legislation to solve social problems or address crises. These needs are often meritorious ones proposed by people of goodwill. Legislative action may be essential to save, say, a social program that works, an industry in crisis, a family farm, a business vital to an entire community, etc. But year after year, legislators must deal with a budget process with more and more constraints put on it by initiatives.
Oh, if we had the money! The things we could do if Eyman hadn't stuck a stick in the spokes of state funding. If the voters hadn't sent a flock of conflicting mandates that serve little more than to confuse themselves and public servants. We could reform the healthcare system and avoid an inevitable crisis. We could thoughtfully raise teacher's pay if the teachers hadn't already grabbed some with their one-size-fits-all cost of living initiative. We could discuss some alternative approaches to transportation beyond just fixing the roads.
It would be great if they actually did fix the roads and the Department of Social and Health Services, while they're at it. Both are in crises. Or dealing with the state's antiquated privacy laws, or the housing crisis or the homeless? Wouldn't it be exciting if we could quit just putting out fires every year and do something once and for all about our regressive tax system?
Or make shoreline water rules fit the needs of both rural and urban areas instead of the unfair one-size-fits-all that piles fuel on the fire of Eastside/Westside resentments.
How about reforming our initiative process -- perhaps requiring a constitutional review or campaign finance disclosure or making fiscal initiatives pull a super majority like we do school bond levies.
Seattle Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who chairs the Higher Education Committee, dreams of keeping tuition affordable at colleges and universities, expanding financial aid, increasing enrollment slots, providing for needed pay increases for our higher ed faculties and staff, public school teachers and staff.
How about helping wire economically depressed small towns in remote areas with high-speed cable to include them in internet business markets?
Rep. Laura Ruderman would like to see treatment dollars for low-income women with breast and cervical cancer. "We spend millions a year to screen these women, but there's no dedicated source of funds for treatment," she says.
How about finally defining for law enforcement the medicinal marijuana law we passed in 1998, so that ill people can possess it without getting busted?
Wouldn't it be amazing to hear legislators discuss affordable universal health care? Or the death penalty? The "digital divide"?
But the shining city on the hill looks pretty distant this biennium. "What it's all about," says Sid Snyder, the pragmatic old man of the Senate, "is the budgets."