It has been said often throughout the ages, including by Winston Churchill and in Spider-Man comics and by the Supreme Court of the United States: With great power comes great responsibility.
That must be the mantra of Democrats in Washington as they prepare to control both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office. Manka Dhingra’s victory Tuesday in a special election in the 45th District returns control of the state Senate to Democrats for the first time in five years, leaving the party with no natural impediment to its agenda.
But rather than view small majorities in both chambers as a mandate from the public, Democrats should view it as a call to act responsibly in welcoming bipartisan input on difficult issues. With all seats in the House of Representatives and most in the Senate up for election a year from now, power can just as quickly swing to Republicans if Democrats do not faithfully act for the good of the state.
For a reminder of the damage created by ideological rigidity, Democrats in Olympia need only look to the other Washington. There, Republicans control both chambers of Congress plus the White House, but they have been woefully impotent in adopting legislation for the benefit of the public. On big issues such as health care and tax reform, Republicans have embraced a unilateral approach that has prevented widespread input and has resulted in shamefully inadequate proposals.
For state lawmakers, next year provides a scheduled 60-day session that likely will prevent any major policy changes. The Legislature’s first duty should be to adopt a capital budget; then it must find a solution for a water-rights issue emanating from a state Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. The capital budget has broad support but was blocked by Republicans demanding a fix to the Hirst issue. These contentious items provide Democrats with an opportunity to embrace bipartisanship and to demonstrate that accomplishments are more important than dogma.
Lawmakers also likely will need to tweak the expansive budget agreement reached this year in an effort to adequately fund public education. The state Supreme Court has yet to render an opinion on the effort, but a shortfall in funding for special education shows that the work is far from finished.
Beyond that, next year’s agenda is likely to be filled with relatively small-ticket items that can be tallied in the win column by both parties and will look good on campaign flyers for next November’s election. More intense debates about a capital-gains tax, a carbon tax or an assault-weapons ban will have to wait until the broader legislative session of 2019.
For the past five years, Republicans have controlled the state Senate while Democrats have maintained a majority in the House. This has served the public well in forcing give-and-take that has generated compromises. But it also at times has created paralysis, most notably during this year’s record 193-day session and in lawmakers’ reluctance to seriously address school funding until the deadline was near.
Typically, a divided state government is beneficial for the people of Washington. Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, and a bipartisan Statehouse provides some inherent checks and balances. Democrats must recognize that unfettered control in Olympia is not a blank check for a progressive agenda that ignores the needs of the other party or the millions of Republican voters throughout the state.
They have, indeed, a great responsibility to provide Washingtonians with effective governance.