Divided government isn’t going away – time for leaders to step up

When the gavel came down earlier this month to end the 2014 legislative session, it also signaled the potential end of the Rodney Tom-dominated Senate, and the certain end of Act I of former Congressman Jay Inslee’s governorship.

Presidents, Governors, and State Senators may be elected to four-year terms, but we elect a new Congress and a new Legislature every two years.  So where do we stand at the end of the 63rd legislature, and at halftime of Jay Inslee’s term?  Basically, stuck in neutral.

The dominant theme of the past two years is the inability of the new Governor to create a dominant theme in Olympia.  The Governor talked about passing major legislation on climate change, gun control, the minimum wage and increasing teacher salaries. None of his ideas passed.  It would be easy to say he was blocked by the Republican/Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate, but Governor Inslee was unable to even get his priorities passed (or even brought up for a vote) in the House, where Democrats have a solid majority.

More importantly, on issues that were more than political symbolism, Inslee was unable to bring Republican and Democrats together to forge solutions as past governors have done.  Transportation negotiations collapsed.  The Governor never offered a serious plan to meet the requirements of the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision and fully fund K-12 education by 2018, and he never demanded that the Legislature produce such a plan.

Further showing a certain lack of relevance, late in the 2014 session the Governor personally lobbied his own party’s leaders in the House and Senate to support legislation requiring that student test scores be used as a component of teacher evaluations in order to comply with federal requirements.  Inslee’s fellow Democrats embarrassed him by standing instead with the state’s powerful teachers union and refusing to even vote on his proposal. As a result, the state will lose control of more than $40 million dollars in federal education funding, which primarily benefitted low-income students.

Governors don’t always get their way, but to be completely rebuffed – or stiff-armed, to use a sports analogy Inslee would be familiar with – by your own party on a major issue is unusual.

The last two years have not been completely wasted.  Nearly a billion dollars was added to K-12 funding, and further increases in taxes and college tuitions were avoided at the insistence of the Senate Republicans.  The deal to bring keep Boeing’s 777 manufacturing jobs in Washington was a major victory.

But this state faces significant challenges that demand non-partisan executive leadership.  We need a transportation package that plugs the funding gaps in basic maintenance, local roads and transit, and funds the major highway projects we all know are needed.  Most importantly, we need a serious plan that funds our schools without the use of local levies.

These are major policy lifts.  Raising taxes, even for transportation, is hard.  And the McCleary decision is not just about more money; fundamentally it is about changing how we fund and govern our schools, and how we compensate staff.  Creating a constitutional school system without levies where funding is “ample,” and most importantly, “uniform” across the state, (as the State Supreme Court ruled is required in the constitution) is one the greatest political and policy challenges Olympia has ever faced.

Republicans and Democrats need to start working together, because divided government is not going away any time soon. In order to have not just a Senate majority, but a liberal majority willing to raise taxes, Democrats would have to achieve a net gain of four Senate seats this fall – a net of two would put them in charge of committee chairs, but not really the budget.  That doesn’t unlikely at this point in the election cycle, especially with the retirement of Democrat Sen. Tracey Eide in the swing 30th District.

If we are going to make progress in the next two years on transportation and education, Governor Inslee must lead.  He needs to stop waiting for the House and Senate to propose solutions and plans and, instead, propose plans of his own that have a realistic chance of passing both the House and the Senate.  And then he needs to use the considerable power of his office to “persuade” lawmakers to take action, instead of reverting to a D.C.-style approach of just taking partisan shots at Senate Republicans and always siding with House Democrats.

Olympia is quiet now.  Campaigns around the state are heating up.  But next January, the focus will return to the capitol.  For the sake of smarter government, the next two years need to be better than the last two.

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Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Former State Representative, County Councilman, and GOP State Chairman. Now working as a Public Affairs Consultant, Senior Advisor to SPI Randy Dorn, and Political Commentator on KING and KCTS TV and Crosscut.com