This Washington

Two Democrats Give Republicans Majority in Bid to Control State Senate

Democratic State Senators Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom side with Republicans in dramatic move to control state senate.

By Josh Feit December 10, 2012

Democratic state Sems. Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom sign on to GOP plan

After staging a budget coup last legislative session, the state senate Republicans must have had an epiphany: If they could commandeer the senate floor for one evening despite the Democrats' supposed majority, why not commandeer the whole session?

This morning, with two dissident Democrats joining their ranks—Sens. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue) and Tim Sheldon (D-35, Potlatch)—the Republicans turned a nominal Democratic 26-23 majority into an effective 25-24 GOP advanatage, and issued a plan to do just that.

The Republicans had an epiphany:Why not commandeer the whole session?The Republican plan, an alternate to the leadership and committee chair plan the Democrats proposed late last month, and pitched as a "power-sharing proposal," would turn over six committees to the Republicans, six committees to the Democrasts, and install Republican and Democratic co-chairs as the heads of three committees.

The Republican plan, which includes a statement of principles including GOP themes about shrinking and reforming government, puts the most important committees—Ways and Means and K-12 Education—in GOP hands. Moderate Eastside Sens. Andy Hill (D-45, Redmond) and Steve Litzow (D-41, Mercer Island), respectively, would chair those commitees. When it comes to fiscal policy and education, the pair are in line with GOP budget tightening and education reform. However, both are social liberals and also often side with the Democrats on environmental issues.

The GOP plan would also put the health care committee—a high-stakes committee as the state gets ready to implement Obamacare—in the hands of conservative Republican Sen. Randi Becker (R-2, Eatonville), displacing ardent liberal health care reformer Sen. Karene Keiser (D-33, Des Moines).

In the GOP proposal, the Democrats would retain control of one key committee, the Environment Committee.

The plan would also prevent either party from having more than a one-vote advantage in their respective committees.

"Twenty-five is 25," Seattle Democratic state Sen. David Frockt concedes. "They have the numbers. We feel like we're being dictated to."

The Democratic plan proposed late last month by new Democratic leader Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill)—when he hoped to keep Sens. Sheldon and Tom on board and maintain control—would have also imposed a one-vote majority cap on committees, though all the committees would have been under Democratic control.

Also hoping to assauge the Republicans, the Democrats had put a conservative, Sen Jim Hargrove (D-24, Hoquiam), in charge of Ways and Means. And they made Sheldon himself the vice chair of the powerful Rules Committee. (They couldn't make him chair because that spot is reserved for the Lieutenant Governor.) They also proposed a co-chaired bipartisan committee on K-12 education funding.

All that, evidently, wasn't enough. In addition to their power sharing setup, the GOP plan makes Sen. Tom the senate majority leader over the Democrats' pick, Murray.

The Republicans would drag the needle to a screeching halt on the way I've framed this story so far, though. Rather than calling their proposal a GOP plan, they're calling it a "bipartisan coalition."

In a statement this morning, Tom said:

"The fact that 65 percent of citizens just voted to affirm a two-thirds vote standard for raising taxes also shows they are looking for a more responsible government—especially when it comes to spending. It is time we put aside party dynamics and focus instead on the needs of all Washingtonians."

Tom's statement concluded: "The public is hungry for Olympia to come together and work cooperatively."

Democrats may cringe at Tom's idea of using a Tim Eyman anti-tax measure, 1185, as a hallmark of bipartisanship, but the fact is: Even blue King County approved the measure 54.26 to 45.74. The only legislative districts in the state to go against the measure were in Seattle, where five of six districts voted against 1185. (Seattle's 11th Legislative District, which also includes Renton, Burien, and Tukwila, approved the measure  61.98 to 38.02).

Ironically, erstwhile senate majority leader Sen. Murray's district, the 43rd, voted the heaviest against the Eyman measure, 68.29 to 31.71; Murray, of course, may have been displaced today.

The Democrats are not buying Tom's bipartisan rhetoric. Sen. David Frockt (D-46, N Seattle), who was slated to be the co-chair of the new K-12 funding committee in the Democratic proposal, says, "They're calling it a 'coalition,' but it's 23 plus two. I don't think that's the essence of bipartisanship. Yeah, you need 25 votes around here, but that doesn't make it a coalition."

However, Tom told PubliCola:

"People don’t elect parties, they elect people. This is about getting the parties out of the way. It's time to get over the politics and start governing. No one party has all the answers. Rob [McKenna] still got 48 percent of the votes. There’s that many that think the other side does a better job than we do.

"I don’t think so many of these issues are based on party. I think [we should discuss] the issues and run from a philosophical majority instead of a caucus majority. When you have an issue and you won't bring it up because of party politics, people are tired of that and they should be.

"It’s time to get past that. [Power sharing] gets some of the divisiveness out of politics. I think for a bill to pass it should have several members from the other side that you didn’t get, buying in; I think that’s good legislation.”

Again, the Democrats aren't buying it. Washington State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz issued a statment of his own today. "The truth here is that Sen. Tom has instigated this unprecedented coup and joined with Republicans to install himself as Majority Leader out of a desire to further his own personal ambitions, not out of what is in the best interests of his constituents or the public at large. What he announced today is a prescription for instability and division."

Pelz also echoed a question we raised earlier this year when Tom first started talking about siding with the Republicans: Would he return the money the Democrats spent electing him in 2010? (By the way, Tom was a Republican state senator until he became a Democrat in 2006.) 

"In 2010, Senators Tom and Sheldon stood for re-election as Democrats. Senator Tom even accepted over $25,000 in contributions from the Democratic Party."—Dwight Pelz

“In 2010, Senators Tom and Sheldon stood for re-election as Democrats. In the case of Senator Tom, he even accepted over $25,000 in contributions from the State Democratic Party. But today, Senators Tom and Sheldon turned their backs on the Democratic Party by siding with a radically right Republican caucus that earlier this year attempted to slash critically important funding for education and social services for the elderly and the vulnerable.”

Good talking points, but the Democrats don't have the numbers to really do anyting about it.

"Twenty-five is 25," Frockt concedes. "They have the numbers. We feel like we're being dictated to."

Murray himself said: "We don’t believe the Republicans’ take-it-or-leave-it plan offers the right way forward. We remain hopeful that Republicans will be open to negotiations to ensure the full functioning of the Senate.”

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