A power shift in the Senate and pressure to increase school funding despite a budget deficit have set the stage for the 2013 state legislative session, which starts Monday, Jan. 14.
With three Republicans and three Democrats representing Whatcom County, reactions are predictably mixed to the Republican takeover of the Senate. The party effectively has a one-vote majority, after the 23 Republicans, and Democrats Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, announced last month they were forming a new caucus.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, has been an outspoken critic of the shakeup.
"There's been no compromise, no discussion," Ranker said. "A proposal comes out of left field that we've been told doesn't have any flexibility."
The proposal would seat six from the Republican majority on major committee chairs. Democrats would be in charge of six lesser committees. Democrats announced Thursday, Jan. 10, they wouldn't accept the offer.
Ranker, about to begin his second term, has seen the Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee he chairs broken apart. He said Friday, Jan. 11, he wouldn't accept a chair on one of the diminished committees.
"At this point, it is not my intention to accept a committee chairmanship," Ranker said. He will focus instead on issues outside his committee, such as passing the Reproductive Parity Act. This piece of legislation is important to him, and he says it is jeopardized by the new majority. The law would mandate that all "reproductive choices" be covered by insurance, Ranker said.
"A supermajority of Washingtonians supports that position," he said. "This Republican coalition does not represent a supermajority of Washingtonians."
Ranker said the coalition's commitment to what it calls a "sustainable budget" also puts at risk other services important to voters.
"The coalition has said they are not going to raise taxes," he said. "You're only going to dramatically impact K-12 education or the safety net, or both."
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said social programs wouldn't necessarily be reduced if the new majority gets its way. He said he supports a "private sector" solution over "big government."
"I understand the frustration Sen. Ranker has ... moving into a more minority position, but I'm hoping he will have a more open mind and work on solutions," Ericksen said.
The posturing is more relaxed among members of the Democrat-controlled House, where leadership issues have been resolved for weeks.
Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, took a spectator's view of the Senate fireworks. He compared the current shuffle in the Senate to last session, when three Democrats crossed over to agree with Republicans on a budget. He also likened it to auto racing.
"NASCAR can be boring. You're just watching cars going around in circles," Buys said. "What you're really watching for is that once-in-a-lifetime explosion. That's what we've had in the Senate."
Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, would rather not concern herself with the excitement in the Senate and how it might make it harder for the two houses to cooperate.
"I'm not going to focus on the negative of the gridlock and how to deal with that," Lytton said. "What I'm going to focus on is my job."
Lytton's first priority is finding more money for education, as mandated by the state Supreme Court in the McCleary decision. The court ruled a year ago that the Legislature is not fully funding K-12 education, as required by the constitution, and lawmakers must report progress toward that goal each year until achieving it in 2018.
Last month, the court ruled the Legislature's 2012 progress report was inadequate, and it needs to do better in its report after the upcoming session.
Lytton, former president of the Anacortes School Board, is on the House Education and Finance committees. In Finance, Lytton said she will look for ways to restructure the tax system to generate more revenue for schools. One way might be to close tax loopholes, she said.
Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said the Legislature needs to come up with $1 billion more for schools - as Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed in her last budget - and fill a $900 million budget deficit.
While Gregoire proposed tax hikes, Morris noted that incoming Gov. Jay Inslee made a campaign promise not to increase taxes.
Morris indicated he was more in alignment with Inslee, as he is not interested in trying for a tax-increase vote in the Legislature.
"We would move toward putting something on the ballot if it required new revenue," Morris said.
Buys, on the other side of the aisle, said a combination of more revenue and cuts to expenses would be needed to honor the McCleary decision.
He had more to say about how to save money in education.
"At school districts they have so many rules and regulations, with administrators wasting time on paperwork, they can't get money into the classroom," Buys said.
For one thing, schools can't spend restricted grant money on programs that need the money more, Buys said.
While education and a balanced budget are hashed out, lawmakers intend to bring their particular issues to the floor. As leader of the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee, Ericksen will explore how new technologies might contribute to the state's energy needs. This could even include government subsidies to get some of them started.
"Goal No. 1 is low energy prices," Ericksen said. "If we have a plan that can be accomplished in five years if they get some help today, that's what we'll pursue."
Ranker, who lost his leadership position on energy issues as a result of the Senate power shift, doubts Ericksen would support alternative energies such as wind and solar power. Both are primed for "dramatic expansion" in this state, Ranker said.
"This is somebody who has voted zero percent of the time on any of those issues," Ranker said of Ericksen.
Understanding it could be an uphill battle, Ranker would like to introduce a carbon tax in the Senate. The tax wouldn't cost businesses anything, Ranker said, because it would phase in alongside a reduction in the business and occupation tax. Refineries and other companies would have an incentive to release less climate-change-inducing carbon dioxide because they would then pay less tax.
Morris will chair the House Technology and Economic Development Committee, where he said he will work with Inslee to boost "green" jobs, which could include anything from positions at solar-power companies to contractors that install insulation in old buildings.
While her main emphasis will be on education, Lytton said she also would like to pass bills to help the marine industry and organic farming.
Buys, who is on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, will try again this year to pass legislation that would allow berry farmers to keep their water rights even after they convert to irrigation systems that use less water.
Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden, did not respond to interview requests for this story.
LAWMAKERS BY DISTRICT
The 40th (south Bellingham, southwest Whatcom County):
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, served since 2009. 360-786-7678.
Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes, served since 2011. 360-786-7800.
Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, served since 1997. 360-786-7970.
The 42nd (north Bellingham, Ferndale, Lynden, Blaine, rural Whatcom):
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, served since 2011 in Senate, in House 1999-2010. 360-786-7682.
Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, served since 2011. 360-786-7854.
Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden, served since 2011. 360-786-7980.