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Sunday, April 22, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Legislature 2007

Democrats spent big but showed restraint

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Democrats entered this year's legislative session with near-record majorities in both the House and Senate, and the biggest budget surplus in state history.

They're scheduled to wrap up today after four months of one-party lawmaking that included extending rights to gay and lesbian couples, banning handheld cellphone use by drivers, and adding thousands of children to health-care programs for the poor.

Along the way, they made plans to spend about two-thirds of the state's projected $2 billion budget surplus.

Now the question is: Will Democrats pay a political price for their largesse?

Between now and the 2008 election — when Gregoire and more than three-fourths of the Legislature must face voters — Republicans will try to drive home the message that Democrats are recklessly leading the state over a fiscal cliff.

But, the fact is, there were lots of things the Democrats did and didn't do this session that might blunt attacks against their big-spending ways.

Much of their new spending is in politically popular areas such as education.

And the Democrats didn't raise taxes — always the biggest political no-no. They approved a constitutionally protected "rainy-day" savings account, an idea Republicans have been pushing for years.

The Democrats said no to the Sonics' proposal for a shiny new taxpayer-financed arena in Renton. Likewise to a NASCAR track near Bremerton.

Yet they pushed an aggressive agenda and did plenty to please many of their allies, while managing to keep their caucuses from veering too far from the centrist path on health care, business-labor matters and other politically divisive issues.

"I've been surprised how well we've been able to manage with this big of a group," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. "People seem to understand we need to tread boldly with caution."

GOP almost powerless

With Democrats holding a 62-36 advantage in the House and a 32-17 edge in the Senate — the largest majorities in decades — there was little the Republicans could do other than make noise.

"Just sit and watch it go by," said House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis.

Indeed, the Democrats pushed through a number of things — some big, some small — that had lingered for years.

They finally mustered the two-thirds vote needed to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow school districts to pass property-tax levies with a simple majority vote of the public. The constitution currently requires 60 percent approval for school levies.

The issue had come up repeatedly since at least the early 1990s.

The Democrats also passed the ban on cellphone use while driving and legislation requiring that sex education in schools include information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases — both of which had failed in previous years.

And a few Democrats will finally get to see their pet issues become law, including a bill creating a new state poet laureate position and another to penalize people who cut in line at state ferry terminals.

Some of the Democrats' allies could hardly be happier with how the session went.

Environmentalists put out a news release Saturday touting that they had gone "four for four" as lawmakers approved all of their top priorities, including legislation setting up a new agency to oversee cleanup of Puget Sound and a bill banning a potentially toxic flame retardant.

"It was an enormously successful session," said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for the Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council.

Others, however, were bitterly disappointed.

Despite a big lobbying push from advocates for the poor, lawmakers once again rejected efforts to impose restrictions on the fast-growing payday-loan industry.

Likewise, gun-control groups thought the bigger Democratic majorities meant they would pass a long-sought bill requiring criminal background checks for all firearms sold at gun shows.

But House leaders, seeking to protect their Democratic members who live in more conservative and rural areas of the state, refused to let the legislation advance.

Studying the issues

Another sign of the Democrats' restraint: lots of task forces and studies.

At the start of the session, some Democratic leaders were talking about a major overhaul of the state's health-insurance market. But they ran into a fusillade of criticism from business and insurance lobbyists and, by the end, the proposal was scaled back to a voluntary pilot project that will apply only to small businesses.

One of the Democrats' marquee proposals — a new state-run insurance program to provide paid family leave benefits — was also watered down significantly. And, after House leaders balked at imposing a payroll tax to fund the plan, lawmakers were working Saturday to create a task force to suggest options.

Lawmakers also opted for more study on some of labor's top priorities, including a bill aimed at penalizing large employers that have numerous workers on state-subsidized health-care programs.

With all the task forces and studies, "there are lots of things that are out there that we'll have to contend with next year," said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business.

While business leaders say the Democrats did little to reduce health-care costs, Brunell praised them — especially House Speaker Frank Chopp — for not "overreaching."

"One of the things Chopp told us a long time ago was that he was going to try to be more balanced with business, and he's pretty much stuck to it," Brunell said.

Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said it was just a so-so session for unions. But he predicted labor will do better in the 2008 election-year session.

"I think they'll be a little more responsive next year, when they know they're going to be coming to us asking for all kinds of help," Bender said.

Mixed reviews

Rep. Doug Ericksen, deputy House Republican leader, contends the Democrats pushed one of the "most radical" agendas the state has seen in years.

"If you look at the mainstream of Washington state, I think this Legislature has been about four steps to the left of the mainstream," said Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

But Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, said Democrats "did a masterful job" of appearing moderate while keeping their supporters happy with large increases in spending.

"I give the Democrats high marks for accomplishing what they set out to accomplish, but that is not going to insulate them in 2008 against a competent Republican effort," he said.

The Democrats put together a $33.4 billion two-year budget that spends $4 billion more than the previous biennium. They burned through almost two-thirds of the projected $2 billion surplus in tax revenue, setting aside $724 million in reserves.

The budget adds nearly 3,000 new state jobs, spends about $800 million on pay raises for teachers and state workers, plows another $341 million into public schools and spends an additional $156 million for new health-care programs and to expand existing ones.

Republicans can point to projections from the governor's own budget office that show the state falling back into the red within four years.

But the Democrats likely gave themselves some political cover by passing the rainy-day fund. And unless the economy takes a serious nose dive this year, it's doubtful the Democrats will have to raise any taxes before the next election.

Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, said Democrats "haven't put themselves at great risk."

It's harder to go after Democrats for spending money because a lot of people benefit from the increased spending, he said.

"It's easy to govern when you've got all those seats [in the Legislature] and all that money," Donovan said.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com. Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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