One issue consumes fractious Legislature
The furor has spilled into the Legislature and lawmakers are talking about little else.
“We’re sort of mentally a month behind,” absorbed in the election drama rather than squarely facing the issues of the grueling 105-day session, says veteran Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-Snohomish).
Normally, opening week of a legislative session is a time of celebration and folderol, swearings-in and happy talk of bipartisanship and success. This time, though, the train wreck of an election threatens that harmony.
The Legislature is narrowly divided, with Democrats holding slim majorities in both chambers and taking up the cause of their governor-elect, three-term Attorney General Christine Gregoire. Republicans, too, are invested in helping GOP rival Dino Rossi, especially since he was one of them. Rossi was the Senate budget committee chairman before resigning to run for governor.
Gregoire is scheduled to take the oath of office at midday Wednesday during a joint session of the Legislature in the House chamber. As winner of an unprecedented statewide hand count last month, by a tiny 129-vote margin, Gregoire was designated the governor-elect.
But there’s an air of uncertainty that keeps lawmakers off-balance. Rossi and many Republicans believe the election was fatally flawed and are exploring ways to set the results aside and secure a revote. Court action seems inevitable.
On Tuesday, legislative Republicans are expected to try, probably unsuccessfully, to deny Gregoire a certificate of election until the questions are sorted out. Republicans have been running radio ads and online petitions to bolster their demand for a do-over.
“I am not at all shy about dealing with what is right now a very divided state” and Legislature, Gregoire said last week. She pledged to work with lawmakers from both parties to move the state forward. Leaders in both chambers and both parties likewise pledge to get beyond the election and to collaborate on a vexing set of challenges.
BUDGET WOES: For the third straight budget cycle, lawmakers confront a big shortfall – $1.6 billion or more this time around. That number includes the full tab for voter-mandated spending for teacher raises and class-size reduction. Both initiatives were suspended in order to balance the budget two years ago. Other big chunks of the shortfall would pay for college enrollment, a new contract for public employees, and cost increases for health care, education, and pensions.
Democratic leaders say government efficiency will be the first order of business. Gregoire also says she’s told her budget team to “scrub the budget” for savings.
TAXES: Outgoing Gov. Gary Locke left behind a budget that raises $500 million from new or increased taxes on soda pop, beer, wine and liquor, and about $100 million from a new tax on doctors. Fellow Democrats aren’t using the T-word yet, and Gregoire says, “I’m not looking at taxes right now.”
But Locke and most Olympia hands expect the Democrats to eventually boost revenue before leaving town, especially given the pent-up demands that weren’t financed during the recent recession, including pay raises and the education initiatives. The union advocates for that spending worked hard to elect the Democrats.
Legislative Republicans and Rossi insist that the budget can be adequately balanced without boosting taxes.
ELECTION REFORM: One clear fallout from the Rossi-Gregoire controversy will be scrutiny of the state’s election laws and vote-counting practices. Secretary of State Sam Reed has a package of bills, including an earlier primary and ballot postmark deadline, and more uniformity among the counties. Lawmakers also will be asked to reimburse counties for the heavy expense of recounting the vote twice.
LAWSUIT REFORM: Lawmakers face dueling initiatives – one from trial lawyers and their allies and the other from doctors and their allies – with different approaches to curbing lawsuit abuse and runaway medical malpractice insurance rates. It’s unlikely that either would be approved outright, but legislators might choose to adopt a middle-ground alternative. Voters apparently will settle the debate this fall.
HEALTH CARE: Budget leaders are aghast at runaway health care costs – nearly 19 percent for Medicaid increases alone – and will look for cost-containment ideas. At the same time, Gregoire and the Democrats will try to shore up the Basic Health Plan for the working poor and even expand coverage for children.
EDUCATION: Both parties are working on a more stable source of financing of public education, and Democrats will again push for simple majority approval of school levies.
HIGHER EDUCATION: Both parties likewise are hoping to approve a major increase in college enrollment – Locke has suggested 7,200 new slots in the community colleges and four-year universities, with some new openings reserved for those in high-demand fields such as nursing, computer science and engineering. Lawmakers also are expected to approve a sizable increase in tuition, and give individual colleges and universities authority to boost tuition even higher.
ENVIRONMENT: Lawmakers are considering whether to adopt California’s auto emission standards, the toughest in the world. Other legislation includes tougher “green” construction standards for schools, colleges and large public buildings; a ban on toxic flame retardants; and water quality legislation to help protect and clean up Hood Canal, Puget Sound and other waters.
Democrats fight back GOP effort to delay Gregoire certification
By the narrowest possible margin, Democrats in the Senate rebuffed efforts by minority Republicans to force a two-week delay in issuing Gregoire a certificate of election. She needs the certificate to be inaugurated on Wednesday.
The vote was 25-24 to reject the Republicans' motion. Maverick conservative Tim Sheldon was the only Democrat to vote with the solid bloc of Republicans. Sheldon supported the Republican candidate, Dino Rossi, the former Senate budget chairman.
Republicans said the election was riddled with errors serious enough to undermine voter confidence and to throw the outcome in doubt. Democrats said Rossi and the Republicans are correctly taking their challenge to the courts, and not getting the Legislature involved.
House Republicans planned a similar effort Tuesday in the Legislature.
Earlier Monday, Gregoire had called the opening day of the session "a new beginning" for the state.
Gavels fell in the ornate House and Senate chambers at noon. Gregoire and outgoing Gov. Gary Locke helped dedicate and reopen the Capitol after a nearly $120 million face-lift that followed the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.
Lawmakers also prepared for an earthquake of a different kind - the
continuing furor over Democrat Gregoire's ultra-close election.
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