In politics, all paupers are nonpartisan

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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When your ambulance arrives, do you care if the driver is liberal or conservative? When you’re down to your last buck, does it matter if your next dollar comes from a guy who is straight or gay, vegan or carnivore, Husky or Cougar, Duck or Beaver?

For sure, adversity has this strange way of unifying people across seemingly impermeable boundaries. The adversity that engulfs our Legislature is financial. These days, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are boasting about how harmoniously they’re working to overcome a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall. One reason the elected officials do this is because they want to become re-elected officials, and “collaborative problem solver” and “reaches effectively across the aisle” will impress voters who read upcoming campaign brochures. But another reason they do this is because they simply have no other choice. They’re broke.

Cynics suggest that these legislators — more than working amicably — are simply doing things the Republican way. After all, voters last fall essentially stripped away any possibility of tax increases, and the most powerful remaining strategy is to slash spending, the essence of conservatism.

Whatever the legislators’ motivation, the record is clear. On Dec. 11, a cold Saturday five weeks after the election, they huddled in a special session. The last time they had convened a special session, back in the spring, they squabbled for a month. This time, they met for all of one day, all the time needed to cut $590 million from the deficit. “I am very proud of what the Legislature was able to do today and how they did it,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said on that Saturday of supersonic legislation. “I think it’s historic the bipartisan way in which they stood up to the most challenging time in 80 years.”

Cynics suggest that the threat of politicians’ losing a Sunday off so close to Christmas is a great way to ensure a one-day special session. Another explanation is that the lawmakers didn’t want to endure a second day of protesters outside the chamber singing “Gregoire the budget cutter” to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” But the best explanation is simply that paupers are nonpartisan, even when 147 of them are popularly elected.

Liberals change their tune

Fast-forward a couple of months to Feb. 4, when state senators voted to cut $375 million from a budget that will expire June 30. They did so in bipartisan fashion, by a vote of 38-9. The House is working on its own budget proposal and a final package will be negotiated between the two chambers.

This crisis is so severe, it’s got liberals sounding like conservatives. Consider this comment from Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ed Murray, a Democrat from Seattle: “Washington cannot afford to keep spending at our current rate.” Do tell, the Republicans must have thought. “Our conversation with the public is no longer about all the good ways we can spend their money. It’s about what we’re going to cut. It’s about doing less with less. We need to be honest about this.”

Man alive, those words seem eminently appropriate for any Republican’s campaign brochure.

Not all the legislators have joined this well-tuned chorus, however. Of all the dozen legislators who serve parts of Clark County, which one would you suspect would be the last holdout against bipartisanship? That’s right, good ol’ Don Benton, the Republican state senator. Back during that one-day special session on Dec. 11, according to a story in The Columbian, Benton was the lone Clark County legislator to vote no on the budget fix.

Nothing new there, though. Sen. Benton takes pride in his steadfast lone-wolfishness. For example, he’s also the only Clark County legislator who is sponsoring a bill that, in its title, calls for “Declaring that English must be the language of all official proceedings.” Oh, dear. Another English-only uprising. This would be done by amending the state constitution. Fortunately, the bill is stuck in committee. Or as they say: La propuesta está atorada en el comité. That interpretation is provided just in case you’re interested in learning some new words and aren’t deathly afraid of other cultures.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.