PubliCola's 2011 Legislative Awards: Best Committee Chairs

By Josh Feit May 30, 2011

Now that the session is finally over, PubliCola is rolling out our 2011 Legislative Session Awards. On Friday, we handed out this session's MVPs. And still to come: the "Best Lobbyist," the "Best Legislation," and, of course, our annual Eve Harrington Award.

Today .... the envelope please ... the Best Committee Chairs, one in the house and one in the senate:

Best Committee Chair in the Senate: Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, Ranking Minority Member on the Ways and Means Committee [pullquote]"The changes will pay dividends for many years,” —Sen. Joe Zarelli[/pullquote]

Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-18)

He's not exactly a chair, but as the Republican lead on the senate ways and means committee, Sen. Zarelli (R-18, Ridgefield) made the Republicans a relevant force in Olympia for the first time in nearly a decade. It wasn't just that a batch of conservative Democrats gave the senate Republicans the sheer numbers to finally have some influence. Someone had to have the diplomatic skills to work with the Democrats—and Zarelli seized the opportunity.

Rather than leading an obstructionist-style putsch that's become SOP for his party in the other Washington, Zarelli emerged as a well-reasoned spokesman for the GOP agenda. Arguing that the crashed budget was an opportunity to make fundamental long-term choices as opposed to band-aid fixes, Zarelli was able to reach a consensus with Democratic leaders. (Pouty Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn should take lessons from Zarelli.)

Rather than nuking programs such as the Basic Health Plan (subsidized health care for poor and lower-income residents) and the Disability Lifeline (assistance for the disabled), Zarelli got into the details of how programs actually worked,  crafting new eligibility requirements and curtailing fraud and abuse in entitlement programs that involve electronic payment cards.

“There were certain reforms that just could not wait any longer, because even though the state expects to take in a record amount of revenue over the next two years, it still wasn’t enough to keep programs and services at their present levels. It was worth the extra time to put those in place, because the changes will pay dividends for many years,” Zarelli said in a joint press release with the Ways and Means Chair, Democratic Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Seattle).

Indeed, the joint press release with Democratic budget guru Murray demonstrates just how successful Zarelli's diplomatic approach was. "A lot of people didn't think it [bipartisanship] would last, but it did," Zarelli says in a Republican podcast.

Props to Zarelli for working with his opponents rather than against them. Government needs more examples like him.

Best Committee Chair in the House: Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-44, Snohomish), House Capital Budget Chair [pullquote]It was probably the only victory for Paul-Krugman-stimulus-spending-politics during the entire legislative session.[/pullquote]

Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-44)

One of the biggest standoffs this legislative session was over the capital budget. And three of the four caucuses—the senate Democrats and Republicans and the house Republicans—were lined up against house capital budget chair Dunshee. Despite being outnumbered, Dunshee stopped their proposed constitutional amendment to lower the debt limit and curtail the capital budget.

And when his opponents came back with a weaker provision, a statutory limit rather than a constitutional one, Dunshee doubled his victory by getting them to agree to a higher limit than they wanted.

Whatever you think of his politics—it was probably the only victory for Paul-Krugman-stimulus-spending-politics during the entire legislative session—you've got to hand it to Dunshee for his political tenacity.

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