Who's in charge of the Legislature? Turns out, this is a pleasant question. The answer is everyone, because both parties will share control of the state Senate.An unprecedented majority coalition caucus was announced on Monday, and there are multiple Clark County aspects to what state Sen. Don Benton describes as this new "philosophical majority."
First, there is the effect of Benton himself, whose re-election was not assured until a month after the Nov. 6 election. A recount confirmed Benton's victory by 76 votes (out of more than 55,000 cast) and with Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch supporting the Republicans' proposal -- a balanced approach is in effect. That's good for the Legislature and good for Washingtonians, and it never would've happened without Benton's victory. If the majority coalition's promises of shared control of the Senate prove to be true as the session unfolds, then hats off to Sen. Benton. Republicans and Democrats will chair six Senate committees each, and one senator from each party will co-chair each of three other committees.
Another Clark County chapter of this story concerns strength of voice. Democrats for years have maintained a pit bull's grip on control, especially in the House, with token crumbs of control tossed occasionally to Republicans. Now, neither party can afford to bully the other.
Also affecting our corner of the state is the geographical component of the coalition caucus. Typically, King County kingpins controlled Senate committees, especially the important ones. Now, committee chairs have been chosen from throughout the state. That, too, is good for the entire state.
Yet another local developing story involves Ann Rivers, who last session was a rookie Republican House member but now finds herself with much more clout as a state senator. The coalition caucus is "right in my wheelhouse," she said in a Tuesday telephone interview with The Columbian. "As a freshman I got more bills passed than anyone in the freshman caucus because I worked across the aisle, so I'm very excited about the coalition caucus. Legislation that leaves one party totally happy and one party totally sad is the worst legislation. But when everyone is 60 percent happy, that's the best kind of legislation, for all the people of this state."
What about the other two legs of the power stool, the House and the governor's post, both controlled by Democrats? Benton brings up a good point: "Rodney (Tom) made it clear that the coalition supports (Gov.-elect Jay) Inslee's platform in terms of tax increases not being needed, so that's two legs of the stool on that issue. The majority of Southwest Washington residents are represented by Republicans, so this new plan is good for our community, and having the power shared is good for all the state."
Democrats, of course, are furious. State Democratic Party chairman Dwight Pelz said, "Rodney Tom is a Republican now." No, to the contrary, Tom is whatever Tom says he is, and whatever his voting constituents deem him to be. For now, we can call him an innovator of balanced power.
The News Tribune of Tacoma noted that "2013 was shaping up as another dreary stretch of same-old, same-old Democratic hegemony over House, Senate and governorship. The party's leadership has grown a little too comfortable, a little too arrogant, a little too generous to public unions and other favored interest groups."
Now, though, 2013 could be the start of something new. And it all took shape with Benton's break.