Republicans say legislative moves by Dems dim GOP election hopes
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — When majority Democrats wrapped up this year's legislative session Wednesday night, some of their biggest achievements read like a Republican Party wish list.
They took steps to resolve long-standing water disputes between farmers and environmentalists in Eastern Washington. They handed sizable tax breaks to farmers and the timber industry. They won a truce in the years-long war between business and labor over unemployment insurance. And they pushed through tougher penalties for sex offenders.
What's going on here?
Republicans say passing those bills was more about politics than policy — a strategic move by Democrats to take away GOP campaign issues ahead of the fall's legislative elections.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said he doubts any of those bills would have gotten far this year if elections weren't a few months away. "You have to ask yourself why, in a short session, so many big things came out of here," he said.
"That's absolute nonsense," House Speaker Frank Chopp replied in an interview. "We were just trying to get things done."
Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire also shrugged off Hewitt's assertion, pointing specifically to the landmark bipartisan water deal.
"It wasn't some political strategy," Gregoire said. "We knew we had to do something about water."
Democrats did plenty to please their traditional allies. They put money in the budget for cleaning up Puget Sound and added thousands of children to state-funded health care.
But Democratic leaders acknowledge that the more centrist items on this year's agenda will leave little campaign fodder for the Republicans.
"What are they going to complain about?" Chopp asked.
Even some Republicans are grumbling about how difficult it will be to go after Democrats.
Chopp and the Democrats have been "eating our lunch," said Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island.
Lawmakers on both sides say the odds are good that Democrats will gain seats in the fall and return next year with even bigger majorities. That prospect worries Republicans and even moderate Democrats, who fear it could send the Legislature careening leftward.
But Democratic leaders insist that they won't let that happen.
"The only way we keep [the majorities] is if we govern from the middle," Gregoire said. "That's where the public at large is."
GOP campaign themes
Despite the Democrats' successes, Republicans are already trying out what could become potent campaign themes.
During the past two years, for instance, Democrats have increased state spending by some $3 billion, and last year added nearly $500 million in new taxes and fees. While the Democrats did manage to leave nearly $1 billion in reserves this year, projections show the state falling back into the red by 2010.
"The complete lack of fiscal responsibility is incredible," state Republican Party Chairwoman Diane Tebelius said in a news release issued Thursday.
Republicans also can point out that they were the ones who made the initial push on popular legislation passed this year, including tougher sentences for sex offenders, increased penalties for drunken drivers and the repeal of parking fees in state parks.
"If the ideas are good, well, they were our ideas," Jarrett said.
Republicans also say they believe they'll benefit from several citizen initiatives that could make the fall ballot and bring out conservative voters. The proposals include a repeal of controversial gay-rights legislation that Democrats pushed through in January, and a sex-offender sentencing law that would be much tougher than the version Democrats passed this year.
Republicans might also go after Democrats for failing to reinforce the state's ban against same-sex marriage. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule at any time on the legality of the state's Defense of Marriage Act.
In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans tried to force a vote on a bill to codify the same-sex-marriage ban in the state constitution.
Democrats said the attempted gay-marriage vote might help shore up the Republicans' conservative base, but won't help them in the election.
Even business groups, traditionally more inclined to support Republicans, are praising Democrats for how they handled the session this year.
"The Democrats did pretty well in positioning themselves coming out of the Legislature," said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business.
"Given our priorities, it's hard to say this was anything but a successful session," said Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, a prominent business group.
All 98 House seats and nearly half the 48 Senate seats will be on the fall ballot. The Democrats hope to add to their 12-seat advantage in the House. But the bigger stakes are in the Senate, where Democrats cling to a one-seat majority.
They have a big advantage going in: Most of their Senate members up for re-election are in safe districts, while the Republicans will have to fend off challenges in suburban swing districts. The Republicans are also losing two incumbents — Sens. Stephen Johnson of Kent and Bob Oke of Port Orchard are retiring.
"It's no secret it's going to be a tough cycle for us," Hewitt said.
The last time Democrats held strong majorities in both the House and Senate was during the 1993-94 Legislature. Along with then-Gov. Mike Lowry, the Democrats pushed through the biggest tax package in state history and passed sweeping health-care regulations.
In the ensuing election, the Democrats got creamed and lost control of both chambers.
Republicans predict Democrats will again overreach if they win supermajorities in the fall.
But Democratic leaders say they are determined to avoid a repeat of 1993-94.
"I was a freshman then," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. "I went through the whole boom and bust cycle, and I considered that to be a significant learning experience."
Gregoire said the key to many of the Legislature's successes this year was that Democratic leaders were willing to compromise with the Republicans. She said she will insist that they keep doing that.
Deputy House Minority Leader Mike Armstrong put an altruistic spin on the GOP's dilemma. It doesn't matter, he said, if Democrats want to keep passing bills advocated by Republicans.
"We're here to work for the citizens of Washington state and not to work for another election," said Armstrong, R-Wenatchee. "That's a key difference in how our parties think, which probably has something to do with why we're in the minority so much."
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