County's recently elected senators split on new alliance

Two Democrats join with GOP to create power shift

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Clark County's senators-elect were at odds on Monday about whether the chamber's new alliance between 23 Republicans and two Democrats is good for Southwest Washington.

Republicans from the region say the Senate's new power shift — made possible once Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, won his bid for re-election in a hand recount — will keep lawmakers focused on centrist topics during the 2013 legislative session.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen.-elect Annette Cleveland of Vancouver said she worries the lawmaking process could slip into "dysfunction," like a pair of dancers both trying to take the lead.

Cleveland said that while she believes strongly in bipartisanship, "This is a process that has not been vetted or tested. … We have some really tough challenges ahead, and we have to have a process in place that we can trust works, and certainly the Senate process that's been in place for over 100 years has served us well."

The new alliance in the Senate will ensure that the Senate's committee leaders are from all of the state's regions, not just King County, State Sen. Ann Rivers, La Center, said.

"I'm so excited I can barely see straight," Rivers said on Monday. "This new structure will mean better representation for all of our people across the state."

Joe Zarelli, who served for years as a Republican budget guru in the state Senate, said he backs the new power-sharing concept. He said the coalition will set a tone of compromise for the upcoming legislative session, prompting lawmakers to set aside any "extreme" proposals they might have.

"I think that starting out this way will lead to a more collegial process," said Zarelli, who resigned from his Senate seat in May. "That should allow the more middle-of-the-road, basic issues to be the focus of discussion."

The fiscally conservative alliance will still need to work with its Democratic counterparts in Olympia to get anything done, state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, pointed out in a story comment he left on The Columbian's website.

"Moderation will come," Moeller said. "But regardless, all bills will need to pass though a decidedly democratically controlled House and get the signature of a new democratic governor."

As part of the Senate power shift, the plan calls for the Senate Transportation Committee to be co-chaired by one Democrat and one Republican.

Rivers, Zarelli and Cleveland all said they weren't sure how that change would impact the Columbia River Crossing plan to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge. The CRC plan requires Oregon and Washington to each dedicate about $450 million to the project in their transportation budgets.

"I think the future is muddy in terms of what impact this coalition government might have on the project," Rivers said.

If Benton had failed to defend his Senate seat against Democratic challenger Tim Probst, the philosophically conservative coalition would have been one member shy of gaining any traction. Benton won by just 74 votes following a hand recount.

"I'm proud that my election allowed this breakthrough to happen," Benton said in a statement. "I couldn't be more thrilled to serve another term under these conditions."

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com