Friday, May 7, 2021
May 7, 2021

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Westneat: It’s Seattle’s state now

Legislative session marked breakthrough for progressive left

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‘We all live in Seattle now.”

That was one conservative state senator’s lament over the just-concluded legislative session in Olympia. It reflects the view — voiced here by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale — that Seattle’s brand of activist, progressive politics has finally, after years of trying, taken over the state.

“The most radical Legislature in the history of Washington state is forcing everyone to live like Seattle,” was how Ericksen framed it.

I’ll get into how accurate this is in a minute. But there’s no question that what just went down at the statehouse marked a political breakthrough of sorts — for the progressive left.

“The 2021 session was the most consequential I’ve witnessed during my 48 years in and out of government service,” said Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, a Democrat, who has been a part of the state or national capital scenes since the 1970s.

Maybe it was the upheaval of the pandemic. Or the unexpected surge of revenue. Or maybe it had become inevitable, following years of polarizing elections in which moderates have been drubbed out of both parties. But suddenly, this year, liberal dreams that have been bollixed up in Olympia forever came true.

They finally taxed the rich. They gave tax credits to the poor. They did the opposite of austerity — what they did the last time, during the Great Recession — and instead used a crisis to pass an enormous budget with new social programs.

The spending plan is 54 percent larger — that’s $20 billion larger — than the state operating budget of just six years ago (and that’s not counting $10 billion more in federal coronavirus-relief money).

Beyond that, they cracked down on bad cops and eased up on drug users. They gave ex-felons the right to vote. They banned open carry of guns at protests. They passed a raft of liberal cultural legislation, from banning Native American school mascots to making Juneteenth a holiday to mandating anti-racism training in state schools.

Most unexpected, to me, was that they suddenly passed versions of the climate change legislation they’ve been pushing up a hill like Sisyphus for the past two decades. Once enacted in a couple of years, it will make Washington the second state, after California, with a cap-and-trade system to regulate carbon emissions, fulfilling a career-long quest of Gov. Jay Inslee.

State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who has been at the statehouse for nearly 30 years, told KVI radio that Inslee has now eclipsed the late Democrat Mike Lowry as Washington’s most left-wing governor. “Mike Lowry is now a centrist, Jay has passed him on the left,” Schoesler said.

It raises the question: Will there be a backlash to all this? Did the Democrats overdo it?

Given the caveat that I’m firmly ensconced in the Seattle bubble, my hunch is: No, there probably won’t be much of a backlash. With maybe one big exception.

For starters, Washington is a liberal state on social issues and only getting more so. We voted years ago to legalize pot and gay marriage, to raise the minimum wage, and to impose some of the nation’s strictest gun controls. Republicans are always saying it goes too far — just last year they predicted there’d be a big backlash against Seattle-style values on the new sex-education curriculum in the public schools. But voters overwhelmingly backed sex ed.

The idea now that letting people with felonies vote, or having diversity training in the schools, or easing off the war on drugs would be deemed too radical for this state’s voters is a stretch. A lot of this stuff is plain overdue.

But where our state turns purple or even a little reddish is with taxes — especially for climate change. Voters here recently rejected climate-change laws twice, in large part because the measures would have jacked the price of gasoline. Unlike the capital-gains tax on the wealthy, carbon taxes would hit most everybody.

So I doubt we’re really all Seattleites now, at least on that issue. The fight about climate change and the price of gas is probably only revving up.

The GOP critics are not wrong about the gist of what just happened, though. Seattle has long been the big political power in the state, but the more moderate Legislature operated for decades as its check and balance. Many lefty ideas went down to the statehouse, only to die or get blenderized beyond all recognition.

Not this time. Ideologically, it really is Seattle’s state right now. Everybody else is, for the moment, living in it.

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