Low expectations from deeply divided Legislature

The OlympianJanuary 14, 2014 

The state Legislature, embroiled in deeply divided budget negotiations, exited Olympia last June after three special sessions, leaving behind a pile of important but unfinished business on social issues. Most of this legislative debris piled up on the doorstep of the Republican-controlled Senate, where the chamber’s leadership refused the bills a floor vote.

Look for a flurry of activity in the Democrat-controlled House early in the session that began Monday. House leaders plan to pass a number of bills over to the Senate quickly, so Republicans have ample time to consider them.

It’s a strategy that acknowledges the deep ideological divide in the Legislature.

Last year, when Republicans gained control of the Senate, thanks to the defection of one-time Democrat caucus members Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, many important social issue bills died in committee. They included measures regarding firearms, voting rights, women’s reproductive rights and the Washington Dream Act.

Republican-sponsored bills haven’t fared much better in the House. Look for conservative bills this year to phase out state employee pensions, to allow businesses to refuse service to gay customers, to support the payday loan industry and other measures that won’t appeal to Democrats.

The public loses when unwavering partisanship prevents reasoned compromise, especially on issues popular with the general electorate. But it’s a reality in the state Legislature, as it is in Congress.

The Senate Health Care committee is a prime example. In 2013, 82 percent of Democratic bills died in Committee.

That was remarkably more partisan than the 2012 session when Democrats controlled the Senate. That year, about the same percentage of bills introduced by the two parties died in committee (42 percent), although Democrats introduced a greater number than Republicans did this year.

Of course, to the victor go the spoils. But the public’s frustration level increases when it appears likely that a number of those measures, such as the Dream Act and the Reproductive Parity Act, would have passed with bipartisan support from moderate Republicans – if only the Senate leadership had allowed an up-or-down floor vote.

Legislative deadlock also killed last year’s transportation revenue package and increased funding for K-12 schools that might have drawn less wrath from the Supreme Court.

But the anti-tax segment of the Republican caucus refused to consider either of the House transportation measures, or its plan to generate more school funding by closing tax exemptions.

Despite pressure from Boeing, and strong consensus from a rare coalition of labor, business and conservation groups to pass a transportation package, it appears ideological differences will scuttle any hopes of a deal during the shortened 60-day session this year. We hope we’re wrong.

We might grade the success of this legislative session simply by whether it submits a K-12 funding plan to the Supreme Court by April 30 and averts a contempt of court charge.

In other words, don’t expect much from legislators in 2014, except a lot of rhetoric, finger-pointing and campaign preparation.

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