by Jerry Hughes

The July 24, 2001, entry into the ship's log reads: "The Good Ship Olympia is in its death throes. She flounders absent a functioning captain, and her crew is deserting both fore and aft. The ominous reefs lay dead ahead. Mayday... Mayday... Mayday..."

When this legislative session came to a close last month, Washington State's House of Representatives' co-Majority Leader Lynn Kessler (D-Hoquiam) stated, "We need to put an end to it, we need to say this didn't work. It's very sad, but I don't think anybody can take any more of this. And why would we want to set a record for doing nothing?"

House co-Speaker Clyde Ballard (R-East Wenatchee) had already moved back home, and Gov. Gary Locke's staff added commentary, calling the situation a hopeless case of "political gridlock." The next day, the final entry reads: "Abandon ship!"

The charges from history's court of inquiry will be stark. The ship of state was lost because of the ineptness of the Captain (Gov. Locke) and the timidity and blatant self-interest of the substantive majority of her crew (the State Legislature). The overwhelming consensus among the powers that be in our state's capital was that it is better to adjourn. So that's what they did, sans a properly constructed or adequately funded general budget, without even a semblance of a transportation budget that addresses any critical needs and dismissive of the health care crisis that is about to overwhelm the state. And it appears to have been done simply to save face -- to avoid the stigma of surpassing the record for the longest legislative session in state history. This macabre rationalization should be a fitting epitaph on the political tombstones of numerous defeated incumbents in the state's upcoming elections of 2002 and 2004.

In truth, there are not many absolutes in the political world. However, one particularly applicable one is that in good times, mediocrity in leadership can be tolerated; but in times of great crisis, excellence is required. Locke, the current legislative leadership and most of their political lemmings have failed to exercise even the most basic requirements of visionary governance. In previous commentaries in this space, the scarcity of contemporary leadership has been noted at the state, regional and national levels. This year, the citizens of our state have been forced to eyewitness the painful cost of having lost that political treasure.

Objectively, it should be conceded that they may have faced the "perfect political storm," complicated by an even split between the political parties, but that is insufficient justification for either an AWOL governor or a legislature fractionalized by fear and myopia. Initiative peddler Tim Eyman, a demagogue par excellence, has usurped legitimate governmental decision making and seemingly placed too many elected officials in a near catatonic state. The ancient Greeks viewed politics as the highest calling, demanding courage, intelligence, integrity and vision from its practitioners.

Simply stated, Locke and the legislature collectively failed -- not so much by what they did, but rather by what they failed to do. An abbreviated list of particulars: The state's biannual operating budget was intended to be funded, in part, by the short-sighted, fiscally irresponsible, even unconstitutional action of borrowing from the teachers' pension fund. It should be noted that Gov. Dan Evans exercised a similar action decades ago, seriously destabilizing the teachers' retirement fund. The political forces that proposed the same thing this time around were saved from lawsuits and legal embarrassment only by a last-minute legislative rejection of that specific funding option. Still, the budget's foundation is far from solid.

The Transportation Budget might best be described as an exercise in illusion. It fails to fund the logical solution to our fossil fuel, single-occupant car, freeway-focused transportation trauma. Mass transportation must become the focal point to our escape plan from a failing system that is poisoning our air and critically warming our planet while compounding commuter paralysis.

The failures of Captain Locke and the legislative crew of the once-mighty Olympia extend even further, to the state's blanket primary system, the energy crisis, a deepening stagnation of the state economy, illusionary revenue projections and education-funding lawsuits. These and other issues did not even make it into the debate.

Many of our state's citizens seemed to have moved from anger to indifference. They are dead wrong. The democratic form of government demands an informed and involved electorate. The next few years will likely exact a heavy toll for this absence of political leadership in our state's executive and legislative branches. An indifferent citizenry will soon be made painfully aware of the price that must be paid for its own abandonment of the civic responsibilities to be both informed and involved. Turning that trend around is the beginning of the path to righting this ship of state. But until such changes are made, unfortunately we are left with nothing else to do but man the lifeboats.

Jerry Hughes is a former Washington State Senator

who lives in Spokane.

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