5 Billion Till -- Quick-Tempered Lawmakers Must Agree On Spending
Seattle Times Olympia Bureau
OLYMPIA - Helen, Tom and Valoria. They have to agree on the money or everybody suffers.
Nobody can leave the Capitol until the Legislature's three budget chiefs - Rep. Helen Sommers, Rep. Tom Huff and Sen. Valoria Loveland - seal a deal on how to spend the state's cash for the next two years. Despite a strong economy and flush reserves, it's not going to be easy.
State budgets usually come together like glorified used-car deals. The parties stake out "firm" positions, then eventually split the difference after tempers flash and a deadline nears - April 25..
But negotiations this time are complicated by the freakish two-headed budget chairmanship in the House, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Instead of just one party writing a budget, they have to do it together before sending it to the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The two-year operating budget is what the Legislature is essentially all about. It's a $20 billion-plus package that defines state policies, pays state workers' salaries and provides cash for most state services.
A new budget must be in place by July 1. The only other time Democrats and Republicans shared the House reins, in 1979, it took until June to get a deal.
Gov. Gary Locke and some of the 147 lawmakers gathered here will play roles in negotiations. The difference in spending priorities is not likely to be huge no matter who prevails. But the speed and grace with which a deal emerges likely will boil down to how well these three key politicians get along:
-- Sommers, D-Seattle, co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is a brainy budget expert who studies geological history in her spare time. She's the most experienced lawmaker in the House, and isn't big on political niceties.
-- Huff, R-Gig Harbor, her GOP counterpart, is a former high-level Sears executive and a Civil War buff. He's a firm small-government advocate who sees himself guarding the public till from big-spending Democrats.
-- Loveland, D-Pasco, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is a straight-talking former county treasurer with a saddle, a lasso and a beefcake rodeo calendar in her Olympia office. Nothing ticks her off like someone questioning her word.
"All three of them are very strong personalities who believe they are so very, very right that nobody's going to tell them how things should be," says Sen. James West, R-Spokane, a budget veteran. "It's going to be very difficult for them to negotiate."
So far, it's been rough.
Huff and Sommers are still $250 million apart. With just 18 days left in the scheduled session, Loveland is getting antsy. If the House doesn't send her a budget to consider by Monday, she says she'll break protocol and send her own proposal to the House.
Loveland knows her duties are unusual this year - that she may ultimately have to be the mediator between Huff and Sommers.
A mind for detail
Sommers, with her big eyes and stern demeanor, watches over committee hearings like an owl. While many colleagues yawn, chat and snicker, Sommers is riveted to even the dullest testimony, ordering lobbyists to get to the point or sifting papers for facts.
She can't get enough. Many of her colleagues are still learning how the budget actually works, much less the nuances Sommers has cold. She's at home in the details.
She has a master's degree in economics. She wrote a research paper on timber taxes for a Harvard fellowship. Her Magnolia living room overflows with books.
What fascinates her besides budgets?
"Geological upheaval and its impact on history," she says. "Isn't it amazing that just 50 million years ago there were no Olympics or Cascade mountains? Don't you think it's good for us to put ourselves in context? Everybody around here can't think further than two years ahead."
Sommers is a fixture in the House, where turnover is so rampant most legislators have been around less than five years. Sommers has been there 26.
She can probably stick around as long as she wants. She doesn't have to worry about getting re-elected in her district, which covers Queen Anne and Magnolia.
But, despite her experience and knowledge, Sommers' independence has left her conspicuously out of House leadership.
Leadership positions require people willing to work crowds and build allies. "I don't have the personality for it," she admits. "I'm inner-directed. Respect is more important to me than popularity."
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, says Sommers doesn't try to network and sell her ideas the way most members do. "She's just going to demand that it's done, because it's right," he says. "She has an open disdain for the show of this place."
Sommers is the least concerned of the three budget chairs about the way negotiations are progressing so far.
She says Huff's approach is simple: He wants to keep spending down and doesn't care too much about anything else. In contrast, "I look at what our responsibilities are, then figure out a way to meet them."
Sommers also is the only one of the three not sweating the April 25 deadline. "I'm not worried about that," she says. In geological time, it's irrelevant.
An eye on the bottom line
Huff is worried about the deadline. He likes things done on time.
That's one of his hardest adjustments from the corporate to the political world - the lack of punctuality. He hates the way committee meetings often start a half-hour late while milling legislators take their seats.
Huff was part of the Republican revolution in 1994, when a new breed of conservatives gave the GOP control of the House for the first time in more than a decade.
In some ways, Huff symbolized the newcomers' tough-love mandate to run government like a business and to watch bottom lines. He looked the part, too, with his CEO suits and wire-rimmed glasses. Huff was swiftly picked to watch the state's money.
He applauded welfare reform. He once suggested unemployed rural residents should consider moving to find jobs.
Huff, 66, grew up in small-town North Dakota, riding a horse to a one-room schoolhouse. He lived in Sacramento during the 1970s and became enamored with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's politics.
Huff rose to national-division sales manager during a 40-year career with Sears. He is the wealthiest of the three budget chiefs, with a waterfront home on Henderson Bay.
He's a golfer and a gardener who reads books on the Civil War to relax. He's as quick to smile and laugh as he is to get angry. When he's mad, it's easy to tell: He has the barking voice of someone used to being the boss.
"He was very demanding, very results-oriented," says Jack Stevenson, former manager of the Sears at Tacoma Mall. "He had a great presence about him. Many of us said we wouldn't be surprised if he ended up in politics. His reply was, `No way!' "
Huff still feels burned over a flap on a tentative stopgap budget deal he thought he had struck with Sommers last month that would have covered state expenses for the final months of this budget year.
The Democrats spiked the deal before a vote. That stumble resulted from poor communication between Sommers and Democratic leaders. It also triggered a Huff news conference and a two-week hiatus in negotiations.
"Just tell me who I'm negotiating with," Huff has said, so often it's become a chorus among House Republicans.
At committee hearings, Huff delivers mini-lectures on fiscal responsibility. At news conferences, he holds up props to make points. He uses a shoehorn to illustrate how he says Locke tries to cram too much into the budget.
Huff's self-appointed role as the taxpayers' guardian is more pronounced this year, the first time his party hasn't had full control of the House since he arrived. "If I don't do it, who will? I don't see too many lobbyists down here that represent taxpayers."
For now, Huff is frustrated. He says the "due process" was violated by Democrats, costing everyone two critical weeks of talks.
He's also frustrated that Sommers wants to complicate negotiations with lengthy discussions of program details rather than working from a balance sheet.
He doesn't sound poised for any big compromises yet. That would violate the first of Gandhi's seven deadly sins, posted next to Huff's desk: "Politics without principle."
A straight-talking moderate
Loveland hasn't been much involved in the House negotiations yet, but she's already tired of Huff's insistence that spending be kept well below the voter-approved Initiative 601 cap.
Loveland thinks she can help to broker a deal that Huff and Sommers can bless. She's as conservative as any Democrat when it comes to money. She balances her checkbook to the penny. She's a good listener.
She's also a notorious straight-talker, almost too blunt for some. "Being one of six kids, you learn to communicate pretty directly," she says, "or you don't communicate at all."
She brings another quick temper to the table, too.
Loveland, 55, has spent most of her life in Pasco. She's an Eastern Washington Democrat who would probably mesh with moderate Republicans in the Seattle area.
Her career path started as a 19-year-old working in the Franklin County treasurer's office. She worked 30 years there, succeeding her mother as treasurer in 1982.
She loves fishing and rodeos and feels connected to the Old West. Her great-grandfather homesteaded an Oregon ranch in the 1840s.
On her desk is a deerskin-wrapped lamp, above it a bright poster of a cowgirl straddling a big, shocking-pink cowboy hat: "If life isn't fun take this here pearl, It's never too late to be a cowgirl," it reads.
Almost her entire office is outfitted with Wild West and rodeo decor, including a wall calendar that features rodeo hunks. The rugged April model is her nephew.
Since Loveland hit Olympia in 1993, she swiftly bonded with people and was picked as caucus leader - the second-highest leadership position - in just her fourth year.
"She developed a lot of respect from people because she was a fair referee," says Marty Brown, now Locke's legislative adviser, who was Senate secretary when Loveland arrived. "With Valoria, what you see is what you get. She is always just very clear."
This year, her colleagues picked her to chair the budget committee.
The mounting pressure that's testing the tempers of Sommers and Huff will likely soon test Loveland's. She had a taste of it recently when she was challenged on the Senate floor.
West, the top Republican on Ways and Means, accused her of partisan insincerity with her latest stopgap budget proposal. Loveland fumed outside afterward.
"Sometimes honesty is not accepted here," Loveland says, taking a long drag on a cigarette in the light rain. "If anything makes me unhappy, it's when someone accuses me of not being honest."
Seattle Times Olympia bureau reporter Dionne Searcey contributed to this report.
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