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Monday, January 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"New beginning" as lawmakers ring in new session

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington lawmakers convened their 2005 session today, embarking on what Gov.-elect Christine Gregoire optimistically called "a new beginning" but facing an immediate war of words over the still-unsettled gubernatorial election.

Gavels fell in the ornate House and Senate chambers at noon.

Gregoire and outgoing Gov. Gary Locke helped dedicate and reopen the Capitol after a nearly $120 million face-lift that followed the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

Lawmakers also prepared for an earthquake of a different kind _ the continuing furor over Democrat Gregoire's ultra-close election. Senate Republicans planned to sound off about the election, demanding a delay in certifying Gregoire's victory over their old colleague, Dino Rossi.

Republicans also want a statewide revote.

The GOP planned to bring the certification question to a vote on Tuesday, one day before Gregoire's scheduled inauguration as Washington's 22nd governor, only the second woman to hold that distinction.

Gregoire attended today's grand reopening festivities for the Capitol.

"It's like a new beginning," she said in an interview. "We have a new set of state leaders. ... It's fitting that we should get into the Capitol now. I'm very enthused by it. It's a great signal for the future."

The state Supreme Court also was inaugurating its new term, swearing in newly elected Justice James Johnson and re-elected Justices Barbara Madsen and Richard Sanders.

The court will eventually take up the election challenge filed by Rossi and the Republicans. The Chelan County Superior Court will hold a hearing on Friday to set the procedures for hearing the case as quickly as possible.

Nearly 10 weeks after voters thought they were electing a new governor, the contest between Gregoire and Rossi still rages in the courtrooms, the marble halls of Olympia and the airwaves of talk radio.

Although the courts probably will be the final arbiter, as in the Bush versus Gore presidential election of 2000, the Legislature has been brought into the middle of it.

The House and Senate will battle at a joint session Tuesday around the arcane question of whether Gregoire should be awarded a certificate of election that makes it all legal.

It should turn into a mostly symbolic moment for Republicans to vent and for majority Democrats to carry the torch for Gregoire. The Senate is expected to vote first, sustaining Gregoire by the narrowest possible margin, 25-24, since Democrat Tim Sheldon, a conservative who favors Rossi and wants a revote, is likely to vote with the Republicans.

The House is expected to follow suit in sustaining Gregoire.

Even if the vote is predictable, the rhetoric is expected to be heated on both sides. House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, and Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park, both wryly referred to this as a food fight in the normally decorous Legislature.

"We're all kind of cringing, waiting until Tuesday gets over with," Fairley says. "The bottom line is a revote ain't going to happen. The House and Senate are solid D."

Minority Republican leaders in both chambers, Sen. Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland and Rep. Bruce Chandler of Granger, say the passionately held beliefs will be stated respectfully, if forcefully.

Some Republicans are talking about a walkout or boycott of the inauguration.

Rossi and the GOP are filing an election "contest" in Chelan County half a state away, asking that the results be set aside and a new election ordered. Rossi's requests for legislative authorization of a revote have fallen on deaf ears.

A group called revotewa.com has collected 150,000 petition signatures in cyberspace in favor of a rerun.

Meanwhile, Gregoire is preparing to take office.

"I know it's an emotional time," she said Friday. "I know it's a tough time. I respect that. I understand that and we'll have to go through the process. But in the end we are all public servants and we owe it to the citizens of the state of Washington to ... set our partisanship aside, our emotions and our hard feelings and move forward on behalf of the citizens of the state."

Rossi said a majority of voters tell pollsters they want to vote over.

"There's a cloud over the governorship right now," he said Friday.

The clash over the governor's mansion, the closest finish in state history, has catapulted the long-simmering issue of election reform to the forefront. Secretary of State Sam Reed and lawmakers from both parties are working on a package to improve the system.

Ideas include standardizing how provisional and absentee ballots are handled, adopting an earlier primary, and requiring vote-by-mail ballots to be postmarked by Friday before Election Day.

As usual, the 105-day regular session starting today will be dominated by budget and tax concerns.

The state faces a projected revenue shortfall of at least $1.6 billion — a figure that presumes legislators resume financing for education initiatives and approve pay hikes for state workers, all largely frozen in the recent recession. It also includes more money for higher education and pension obligations, as well as major increases for health care and other services.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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