This Washington

GOP: Gregoire Can Lead by Giving Cover to Moderate Democrats

By Josh Feit January 12, 2011

Several Republican state senate and house leaders, including Sens. Mike Hewitt (R-16) and Joseph Zarelli (R-18), the senate minority leader and budget head, respectively, and Reps. Richard DeBolt (R-20) and Gary Alexander (R-20), the house minority leader and the ranking ways and means committee member, respectively, held an informal, freestyle press conference immediately following Gregoire's state of the state speech.

While the Republicans crowed about how Gov. "We must recognize government cannot do it all" Gregoire emphasized scaling back government ("It became clear to me the governor switched parties," Hewitt joked), the Q&A clarified a non-Republican storyline that's likely to define this year's session: The power of the small contingent of conservative Democrats known as the Road Kill Caucus. (The name is a self-deprecating reference to the fact that conservative Democrats usually see their middle-of-the-road ideas run over in the battle between liberal Democrats and Republicans every year.)

But  first off, the Republicans did point out that Gregoire's approach this year—an all cuts budget that reevaluates and consolidates government programs and functions—comes from the GOP script. Rep. Ann Rivers (R-18), a freshman Republican who gave the official videotaped response to Gov. Chris Gregoire's state of the state speech yesterday, quipped that she found herself thinking during Gregoire's speech, "I think I wrote her speech too."

Rivers concluded: "I'm glad we're all singing off the same page."

While the Republicans weren't smug about Gregoire's rightward tilt, saying they were eager to start working with her, they also noted some ideological differences.

Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42), a former house member who's now the Republican senate whip, said Gregoire's emphasis on consolidating agencies "could be window dressing" if the legislature doesn't tackle the underlying "cost drivers" of government first. "Consolidation won't make it easier to get a permit, won't lower workers' comp rates, or fix unemployment insurance," Ericksen says. "Consolidation might be fine, but that should come at the end of the process. Focusing on consolidation first is a distraction. You restructure agencies to fit the new policy, not the other way around."

The Republicans also criticized Gregoire's call for user fees for government services such as parks, complaining that those were just new taxes when the voters just rejected new taxes last November. "The voters will wonder what we're doing with the money we've already got," Hewitt said. He also noted that dedicated funds—supported by user fees—typically get raided to prop up the general fund.

Sen. Zarelli echoed his colleagues' call to look at the fundamentals. He said the debate should "not be 'what do we buy and what don't we buy?' That'll be defined by majority party, and that's their prerogative." He said the real issue is how to make government work better.  "Do we eliminate the Basic Health Plan because we can't afford it? Or do we reform it so it does what it's meant to do?"

Zarelli also addressed another major program that's on the chopping block in the governor's budget, the Disability Lifeline—a living stipend and health care money for disabled people who are unemployable. "The speaker [Frank Chopp] is wedded to that program. So how do we make it sustainable?" Zarelli asked.

The Republicans'  tactic is to up the ante. Instead of fighting over which programs should get funding, which is how the Democrats often frame budget debates, the Republicans want to use the budget crisis to change government programs. They ask, for example, if someone who doesn't fall within the federal definition of poverty ($22,050 for a family of four) should get assistance from the state? (The state's Basic Health plan is available to those at 200 percent of the federal poverty level—$44,000 for a family of four.)

And this is where the Roadkill Caucus could come in. To transform government along more conservative guidelines, the Republicans will need Democratic defectors on budget votes. "Currently there's no leader in Washington State for moderate Democrats," Ericksen said. "We'll be looking to the governor to be the leader ... to give them cover to cross party lines."

I've got a call in to Roadkill Caucus leader, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44).

On Monday, the first day of the session, we got a hint of how pivotal the Roadkill caucus will be when the fate of Sen. Nick Harper (D-38, Everett) appeared to be in their hands.
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