Callaghan: State budget among top political stories

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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Here’s one guy’s chronological list of the Top 10 political stories of 2011.

• Jan. 10 — This is as good a date as any to anchor what became a yearlong slog through the recovery-less recovery of 2011 and the effect it had on state and local governments.

The Legislature began what will be 133 days of regular and special session. The budget it produced wouldn’t last. By summer, state forecasters revealed the predicted recovery was slowing and that assumptions again were overly optimistic. By September another $2 billion hole had opened, leading Gov. Chris Gregoire to propose asking voters to raise the state sales tax by a half-cent. A December special session produced only a “down payment” on filling that hole, leaving the hard work to the 2012 regular session.

June 16 — Gregoire announced what most already expected: She would not be a candidate for re-election. But the fact she revealed the decision so early was based on her belief that likely Democratic nominee Jay Inslee was at a disadvantage to already-announced GOP candidate Rob McKenna until she was officially out of the picture.

June 17 — With Gregoire’s decision made, the state’s two main political parties succeeded in reducing the effectiveness of something they both hate — the top two primary. With only one prominent candidate from each party running — not just in the governor’s race but in the open attorney general race and the GOP challenge to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell — they have turned it into a beauty contest.

June 28 — The Washington State Supreme Court heard arguments in McCleary v. State of Washington. At issue is whether the state is meeting the constitutional requirement to fully fund basic education. A decision, which could come in the midst of the 2012 legislative session, would be yet another funding problem for the governor and lawmakers, though few expect an adverse ruling to require immediate remediation.

Aug. 8 — U.S. Sen. Patty Murray was named Democratic chairwoman of the debt-reduction supercommittee. The committee symbolizes what was the national political story of the year — the partisan wrangling and brinkmanship that surrounded the national debt. The supercommittee would ultimately fail, to no one’s surprise, and the issues arose yet again at year’s end over the extension of a popular payroll-tax cut.

Sept. 12 — While it may seem like only a local story, the decision by Tacoma teachers to strike highlighted tensions in state education funding and regulation. Teachers and administrators were forced to find ways around state budget cuts, but the larger issues involved seniority rights.

Sept. 17 — A small protest began near Wall Street but soon spread across America as objections to the political power of the financial sector and concerns over income disparities grow.

Sept. 30 — A Republican state senator from Spokane with less than a year in office declared that he will challenge Cantwell. While Michael Baumgartner has a year to surprise people, the fact that a newcomer from the half of the state that hasn’t elected a U.S. senator since before World War II is the most-prominent Republican running says much about the depth of the GOP bench and the difficulty in toppling incumbents.

Nov. 8 — Election Day produced the end of the state’s control over the distribution and sale of hard liquor after a campaign filled with mutually exclusive arguments and the largest single contribution — Costco’s $21 million in support of privatization.

Dec. 13 — In the bookend to what was also a top-10 story last year, Democratic political consultant firm Moxie Media agreed to pay $150,000 to settle state public-disclosure charges stemming from its 2011 primary scheme to create a shadow conservative group to help siphon votes away from a Democratic incumbent. Meanwhile, another investigation from the 2011 campaign involving conservative group Americans for Prosperity is still unresolved by the state Public Disclosure Commission.