Politics & Government

Close splits in Capitol may empower individual lawmakers

Gov. Jay Inslee has the only veto pen in Olympia, but next year dozens of rank-and-file state lawmakers will have something that comes close.

In what is sure to be the most evenly divided Legislature in more than a decade, each member of the House and Senate majorities could be the deciding vote at any given time.

With Republicans gaining seats Tuesday in the Democrat-controlled House, what was already true of the Republican-steered Senate will be true of both chambers: Any holdout can make trouble for the majority party by saying “no” at key moments.

“One Democrat defects in a committee, and they’ve lost the bill,” said Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.

Still, continued divided government probably means that compromise — not defection — will be key to solving next year’s thorniest problems, starting with the unconstitutional underfunding of education.

Moderates or conservatives thinking about breaking ranks know Democrat Inslee is the final word on legislation, said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish.

And Democrats know the only way they can get proposals through the GOP Senate is to work them out first with their House Republican colleagues, Dunshee said.

He said that’s what he and Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, have done, effectively giving each of them veto power on their committee that oversees construction spending.

Dunshee’s long career in the House includes a 1999-2001 period with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. He said the shrunken majority won’t change much but does mean plenty of negotiation will occur before any important vote.

“You just spend a lot of time talking things out, and you try not to jam people,” he said.

The tight margins are likely to reinforce what is already true of the Legislature: Most of the real decision making is done in places that are not open to the public, whether it’s the caucus rooms or bipartisan negotiating sessions. Lawmakers have exempted themselves from state open meetings laws, and they orchestrate committee and floor sessions to avoid surprises.

A small majority has to be extra careful, watching out for procedural maneuvers by the minority. That’s been the rule in the Senate since Republicans and renegade Democrats effectively took over in 2012 with their own procedural move and then took full power the next year.

“Nobody goes off the floor without somebody knowing where you are,” Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said. “It’s practically a lockdown situation.”

MOVING TO THE MIDDLE?

Senate Republicans and their Democratic ally Tim Sheldon of Potlatch will keep the two-vote majority they had before Tuesday, giving them 26 of 49 seats.

If early ballot counts hold up, House Democrats will have an identical two-vote majority in the 98-member House, with 51 Democrats. House Republicans have knocked off at least two incumbents and have two more on the ropes.

“I get that we have a closer margin,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, “but I think everybody kind of agrees what the biggest priorities are for us this next session” – including finding money for schools.

During the House tie, the Legislature was able to pass important laws such as the “forests and fish” compromise between timber and environmental interests, said Mark Miloscia, who at the time was a House Democrat.

Then as now, the leader of the Democrats was Frank Chopp, who comes from one of the state’s most liberal districts. But Miloscia said Chopp made sure liberal Democrats understood the perspective of the moderate-to-conservative in their ranks.

“He knows how to move to the middle,” said Miloscia of Federal Way.

Now Miloscia is a Republican who switched parties and won election to a Senate seat Tuesday. He says he believes Republicans are becoming more centrist and wants to encourage that trend.

The lawmakers who “tend to thrive” in a closely divided Legislature, he said, are “people like me who want the parties to work together, govern from the middle.”

In the closely divided Senate of 2011, moderate Democrats under the mantle of the Roadkill Caucus — middle-of-the-road legislators who felt like they were getting run over — pushed the two sides to collaborate on a Senate budget. That bipartisan budget process continued, to some degree, after Republicans took over.

But in the House, some of the Democrats voters ousted last week were the very moderates who might have been inclined to push back against liberal proposals, said Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw.

Hurst said the only way to avoid a lengthy overtime period after the 2015 regular, 105-day session ends is for the parties to work together from the first day of session in January on a single budget.

“Let’s play the hand that the voters dealt us,” he said.

From Hurst’s perspective on Democrats’ right flank, that includes jettisoning liberal and labor-backed measures that won’t go anywhere in the Senate. “If we start the session saying guns, abortion and climate change are the big issues, we’re in trouble,” Hurst said.

From Senate Republicans’ left flank, Miloscia has similar sentiments. “What has happened in the past on the Republican side, they do a bunch of hard-right anti-labor bills, and they die in the House, and all they do is generate ill-feeling,” Miloscia said, “so, versus now, maybe we can start doing what labor and business do out in the real world, which is: Let’s negotiate.”

Senate Republicans next year will have to contend with Miloscia, a longtime advocate of anti-poverty and pro-labor programs, and Roach, who was backed for re-election by unions and who doesn’t mind speaking up when she disagrees with her caucus.

“When it’s close,” Roach said, “every one person has a greater say; there’s no question about that.”

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