Power-sharing coalition will move state forward

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Apparently things are so disagreeable in Washington, D.C., that the national news media are officially counting the days before the so-called "fiscal cliff."

Is progress happening behind the scenes, despite what's being said publicly? In 16 years as the 17th Legislative District state senator I've seen that happen more than once. Still, wouldn't it be refreshing if a group of lawmakers was to step forward and commit to collaborate like never before? Even if it meant changing the rules?

As usual, the incoming Legislature faces serious issues. Between persistent unemployment, continued economic uncertainty, new demands related to public education, and the need to control state spending, the legislative session that starts Jan. 14 could be the most challenging I've seen yet.

My recent election to a fifth Senate term allowed the formation of what we're calling the Majority Coalition Caucus -- 23 Republicans and two Democrats who will constitute a majority in the 49-member Senate. It's a positive development for Southwest Washington, as three of the four senators serving Clark County will now be in the Senate majority.

We believe the surest path to the solutions, reforms and spending control Olympia needs will come from joining forces behind a set of principles and a new leadership approach. As the majority we'll set the Senate's rules and agenda, which will include something unimaginable in our nation's capital: A true power-sharing agreement.

The Senate has 15 committees that consider bills according to topic. The senators who chair those committees are more powerful than most people realize, because they decide which measures may become eligible for a full Senate vote. A minority-party senator could introduce legislation that is the greatest idea ever, yet it might not even get out of the gate purely for partisan reasons.

For 2013, our coalition will scrap the traditional partisan approach in favor of governing together. We appointed the chairs of six committees and selected three more committees to have co-chairs, one from each side. Then we did something unprecedented: Our coalition offered the other six committee chairs to the Senate minority. The Democratic caucus leader rejected our invitation, which is puzzling, but I believe that once others realize they have a real opportunity to participate, they'll embrace it.

Also, no Senate committee will be stacked as seen in past years. At most, one side will have only one more member than the other, with the three co-chaired committees having an even split.

If our coalition has the majority, why share control of the committees at all, much less in such an even-handed way? It's a fair question.

Good ideas paramount

I'm politically conservative, as my constituents know. While that won't change, I also realize good ideas can come from both sides of the aisle. The committee structure our bipartisan coalition has proposed should encourage collaboration and help the good ideas to advance.

The potential benefits go well beyond what happened late in the 2012 legislative session, when I made the opening set of parliamentary motions enabling Republican and Democratic senators to form a "philosophical majority." That ultimately produced a sustainable budget and a landmark set of state-government reforms, so I look forward to seeing what this new coalition can do with the additional time that comes with working together from day one of the 105-day session.

Also, if this coalition hadn't emerged Democrats would continue to control the entire lawmaking process, as they have for a decade. Now that our bipartisan Senate majority can counterbalance the House of Representatives and governor's office, we should see an outcome that leans more conservative than it would have otherwise. At a minimum, Gov.-elect Jay Inslee's promise of no tax increases has a solid ally in our majority coalition.

So while the bickering continues in the "other Washington," I am encouraged that we have the Senate heading in a collaborative direction. We'll be able to focus on policies our state needs without so much interference from politics and special interests. In the end, that's likely just what our constituents would prefer.

Sen. Don Benton,R-Vancouver, is Deputy Senate Republican Leader and a member of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.