In Our View: Keep an Eye on the Governor

Legislators resume battle in two weeks, and they're 'light years apart'

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Two weeks of blame-storming began Monday. A more productive launch would've been the Legislature's special session, but Gov. Jay Inslee declared that will start on May 13. Supposedly, this leaves lawmakers a couple of weeks to relax and get ready to return to Olympia and work together to solve their constituents' problems.

We wish. No one is sure if each political side will spend the down time reflecting or reloading. State Sen. Don Benton noted in a Monday statement: "Unfortunately, the Democrat-controlled House wasn't truly ready to negotiate until four days ago, after it adopted a massive package of tax increases. That put us in a very deep hole, time-wise." Inslee said legislators "are going to have to get over their ideological fixations," and then returned the figurative boxers to their corners until the bell sounds again.

It'll take a lot more than two weeks of R&R to repair the rancor in Olympia. Inslee said legislators "are not miles apart … They are light years apart. We have a lot of work to do to get people to move to where we will need to reach a consensus here."

Once they reconvene, our recommendation in the early going is to keep an eye on Inslee and not just the battling budgeteers. Erik Smith of Washington State Wire explains that "House Democrats made no statements and issued no communiques Sunday night: The governor is speaking for them."

This is mildly surprising, considering the moderate tone the new governor maintained during the regular session. It's also a shift from the approach of his predecessor, Chris Gregoire. Smith also reported that Gregoire "played a more above-it-all arbitrator role whenever budget talks began." Inslee, by contrast, is willing to take the risk of investing more personal political capital in the special session. With more ownership, though, comes more accountability, and if those "light years" cannot be traversed by the partisan politicians, Inslee could be viewed as a misguided mediator.

Two other points to consider involve the so-called "majority coalition" and the history of cooling-off periods prior to special sessions. No serious observer of this Legislature was too impressed by the majority coalition, which existed only in the Senate and in a way belonged to neither party. Democratic senators — all but two defectors — deplored the betrayals and saw the change as an illegitimate overthrow of their power in that chamber. Republican senators also knew that, by party identification at least, they could not have seized control of the Senate by themselves. And together, both parties knew the majority coalition still was only one third of the power structure, and the other two thirds — the House and the governor — weren't in much of a collaborative mood. So much for coalitions.

As for down times prior to special sessions, Smith of Washington State Wire explains the record "is not especially good. … When a break has been allowed between regular and special sessions, budget negotiators rarely have reached agreement before lawmakers report for work." In 1991, for example, Gov. Booth Gardner imposed a five-week cooling-off period, and "not a bit of work was accomplished during the recess, and the dickering continued right up until the very last possible moment … It appeared state government might have to shut down for lack of a budget. It is a cautionary tale Inslee might remember; he was a member of the House at the time."

Smith's history lesson is the main reason we advise: For the next several weeks, even while legislators engage in their partisan bickering, watch the governor, too.