Newcomer Wylie played skeptic

Democrat voted with GOP on several key issues

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: May 25, 2011, 11:00 PM

 

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Democratic state Rep. Sharon Wylie, a member of the Legislature for just six weeks, crossed the aisle to vote with Republicans at least four times in the session’s waning days — on the state operating budget, on workers’ compensation reform, on a bill making changes in tax law, and on a measure put forth by majority Democrats to show that a voter-approved initiative makes it all but impossible for lawmakers to close tax loopholes, even those favoring big Wall Street banks.

Wylie says that as a newcomer, she has been appropriately skeptical of bills that make sweeping changes in state law.

But Josh Amato, communications director for the Washington State Republican Party, says Wylie, with House Speaker Frank Chopp’s encouragement, is using her vote to falsely portray herself as a moderate. He cited an incident Sunday in which Chopp, presiding over a House vote on a tax measure, asked Wylie directly if she would like to change her vote. She promptly did so, moving it to the Republican column.

Wylie, a former Oregon legislator, was appointed to the Legislature by Clark County commissioners in April to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of former Rep. Jim Jacks. She faces what is shaping up to be a tough race against Republican Craig Riley in November.

“Sharon Wylie’s instincts are to raise taxes, and the liberal Oregon legislator and lobbyist is going to face a tough election” against Riley,Amato said in a post on the Republican Party website.

“Anyone who knows me well knows I am not the puppet type,” Wylie responded. “Almost all the bills I have voted on have had elements I was critical of. I have been extensively briefed and in many cases expressed an opinion of what I liked and did not like about the various measures.”

On Sunday, she said, “I was distracted and the speaker was reminding me of what I had decided earlier. I was a bit embarrassed and got teased a lot. It felt good-natured at the time. “

On Tuesday, Wylie joined Republicans Paul Harris, Ed Orcutt, Ann Rivers, Bruce Chandler and David Taylor in voting against the $32 billion biennial budget. Among Clark County House members, only Democratic Reps. Jim Moeller and Tim Probst voted for the budget, which passed the House on a 54-42 vote.

Earlier this week, Wylie voted against a bill to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system, saying she was not convinced major changes were needed.

Explaining her budget vote, Wylie said in an email that she’s been faced with “ugly choices that I have not participated in evaluating until the eleventh hour,” such as huge cuts to education and services to vulnerable citizens.

She’s also aware that as an appointed legislator, she fills a different role than if she had been elected.

“In a campaign, constituents have a chance to know how I will vote, what I feel strongly about and what I am likely to do,” she said. “For me, the election process lets me know how my community feels and which issues require more communication if I feel I must do something unpopular or hard to understand. That process has not yet occurred, so I feel an obligation to be more skeptical until that process with voters has taken place.”

She said she asks herself a number of questions before voting, including whether she has heard a strong message from her constituents, whether the bill in question is the best way to address the problem, and whether her vote is critical to its passage.

“I expect to be independent, but I am a Democrat because I am most comfortable with the values of that party,” she said. “Those are values that a lot of people share. The 49th District people will have plenty of opportunity to get to know me.”

Freshman Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, joined his caucus in opposing the operating budget. “I cannot support a budget that goes against my principles or those of my caucus,” he said in a statement. “I know there was a concerted bipartisan effort to craft the operating budget. However, the final product is harmful to education, lacks real reform, doesn’t establish priorities and is missing long-term solutions. We are still funding partial programs and not streamlining services where we can.”

“This budget misses an opportunity to set Washington onto a path of long-term fiscal stability,” he said.

The Senate passed the operating budget late Wednesday on an 34-13 vote, with two excused. Among the Clark County delegation, Democrat Craig Pridemore, Republican Joe Zarelli and Republican Jim Honeyford voted yes. Republican Don Benton was excused.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, worked side by side with Democratic leaders to write the budget. He said he’s largely satisfied with the finished product and dismissed the opposition of House Republicans as political.

Zarelli said the budget fulfills seven of the eight goals he set for it. The one that didn’t get done, he said, was a proposal to allow school districts to consider teacher performance in making hiring and firing decisions. The measure was strenuously opposed by the Washington Education Association, but Zarelli said it was getting traction until Gov. Chris Gregoire stepped in.

Was the Senate’s bipartisan process this year a one-time thing or does it represent a permanent change in the way the Senate operates?

“First of all, I didn’t fall off the truck yesterday,” Zarelli said. In a divided chamber, with 27 Democrats and 22 Republicans, “this was an opportunity for both sides, driven out of necessity, not out of desire.”

But he said the outcome was good for the state.

“There were opportunities for them to win, for us to win, for sharing the responsibility. I think the taxpayers of the state benefited. Moving forward, it also allowed us to see each other a little bit deeper, to see where our opinions come from.”