Political Chicken

By Josh Feit March 19, 2009


1. The state budget forecast for the '09-11 biennium is coming today, and rumors say the shortfall will be as high (or low, actually) as $9 billion. That would be $1 billion worse than the $8 billion hole legislators have been tip toeing around since a preliminary estimate was released in February. 

As the pundits and politicians start to assess and spin the daunting numbers over the next week, I'd recommend staying tuned to PubliCola's Blog-Rola favorite, Schmudget—a blog that deals exclusively with the state budget—for consistently keen breakdowns and recommendations.  

2. Ironically, the big budget news is going to put the spotlight on non-budget issues that could end up defining this session for the party in power, the Democrats.

Don't get me wrong, today's budget forecast will continue to dominate the narrative in Olympia, but with such crippling constraints on the Democratic majority—preventing them from putting government muscle behind traditional Democratic priorities like health care, transit, schools, and housing—the budget narrative is going to turn into a question: How are the near-super majority Democrats going to make good on November's Democratic mandate? Are they going to deliver in other signature areas, like the environment and civil rights?


On those two fronts, the Democrats may as well be the Republicans.
As it stands now, nearly three months into the four-month session, three bills could end up determining how Democratic voters interpret this session: The Governor's climate change bill; a (suddenly) high-profile workplace rights bill; and a bill to undo the 2006 voters initiative that mandated new standards for promoting renewable energy. 

On all three bills, the Democrats in state legislature appear poised to abandon Democratic voters. As we head into the final month of the session, each bill is caught in a game of political chicken involving the most powerful players in Olympia: Speaker of the House Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford); Senate Majority Leader Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane); Gov. Chris Gregoire; Boeing; and big labor.

The First Game of Chicken

If you're a regular PubliCola reader, you know the state Senate passed a bill repealing I-937, the 2006 renewable energy initiative. The bill was pushed by Sen. Brown. Now it's in the House. The thing is, Speaker Chopp has a religious allegiance to the initiative process. The only way he's going to pass this thing is if Sen. Brown makes the bill what folks in Olympia call a "take home" issue—meaning, she tells Chopp if he doesn't pass it, she's going to kill his pet bills in the Senate (any sort of low-income housing bills he sends over, for example).

Is she really going to go to the mat for this bill? The evidence suggests she will. She wrote an opinion piece promoting the bill in the Seattle Times right before the Senate vote, and she got her Majority Whip, Sen. Marr (D-6, Spokane), to sponsor it. The message to her caucus was clear: This is a priority people. And they fell in line, passing it largely along party lines 27-21. 

LOL: A lot of progressives who unwittingly voted for it at Brown's command, are now getting flooded with emails from angry constituents—hello Seattle-liberals Sens. Joe McDermott (D-34, W. Seattle) and Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill). The email outrage was unleashed by environmental groups like the Washington Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and Fuse, who've got serious listserves. I've even heard that the I-937 campaigners from 2006 still have their mailing list of supporters, and they've turned it over to the fuming environmental groups.

Given Sen. Brown's commitment to the bill to date, it does seem likely she'll make the bill a "Take Home" issue in a showdown with Chopp. Who will blink? It may depend on this: Are senators like McDermott, who are having second thoughts about voting to repeal the green initiative, going stick with Brown?

(BTW: Bravest floor-speech of the session so far, goes to Sen. Craig Pridemore (D-49, Vancouver), who told leadership no dice, and condemned  the bill before the vote in the Senate last week.)

Second Game of Chicken

This game of chicken is between Gov. Gregoire and Gov. Gregoire. 

If the Democrats don't pass a comprehensive climate change bill, they will be a laughing stock. That's probably why Gregoire made a rare appearance in front of a House committee on Tuesday, to demand the House strengthen her green house gas bill—a "Governor's request bill" that initially called for a cap and trade system. The Senate ran over the bill with an SUV, and sent a crippled version to the House. 

However, here's the question for the Governor and her staff: Where do they draw the line and say, if we don't get this and this and this, we're no longer supporting the bill? In other words, is Gregoire willing to sign a bill that doesn't do much just so she can say she passed her climate change bill; or conversely, is she willing to fight, and either get a real bill or table an unsatisfactory one?

In a press release issued by her office on the morning of her testimony, Gregoire's office outlined the tough standards that were in her original bill, but stripped out of the Senate version—including specifics like a cap and trade system. Her testimony itself, later in the day, was more vague, but still confrontational. We'll see if she outlines a set of must-haves that she's willing to stand by.

Third Game of Chicken

Finally, there's the workers' rights bill that labor (The Washington State Labor Council) wants resurrected for a vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Sells (D-38, Everett), would prevent management from forcing employees to listen to management spiels about religion, politics, and more to the point, labor issues. 

Democratic leadership, under pressure from Boeing, did what they do every year, they killed the bill. Although, this year, rather than doing it quietly, they made a big stink about it, by flagging an email that the  WSCL sent to its members. The blustery email boasted to members that if the bill didn't pass, labor would withhold money from the Democrats. Yawn. Of course.

But the Governor and  Democratic leadership—seeing a way out—said the email might be an ethics violation—and turned it over to the Washington State Patrol and announced the bill was dead.  

However, the WSP said the email was kosher, and now the  WSLC is demanding that the bill be brought back for consideration. Who will blink?
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