By Robby Stern
A coup in the state senate augurs a very different legislative session than we had anticipated after the November election. Two Senate Democrats have defied the voters that elected them as Democrats. Rodney Tom, a wealthy real estate broker from the 48th district, and Tim Sheldon, from the 35th District have joined 23 Senate Republicans to constitute a majority caucus.
I remember Tim Sheldon from my days as a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC). He consistently sided with business interests and against the interests of working people. He had a 17% voting record on bills important to labor in 2012 and has a lifetime labor voting record of 29%. He voted against Marriage Equality and against legislation necessary to implement the Health Benefit Exchange. The list of labor bills he opposed goes on and on.
Tim is a double dipper holding two full time elective offices simultaneously. Elected to the State House in 1991, he became a state senator in 1997 and then was elected a Mason County Commissioner in 2005. The Senate job is full time during the legislative session and the Mason County Commissioner job is also full time. Nevertheless, voters in the 35th District and in Mason County have seen fit to reelect Tim.
Rodney Tom was a Republican who switched to the Democratic Party to challenge Luke Esser for his Senate seat. He switched from Republican to Democrat when the 48th District began leaning more Democratic.
By his second term in the Senate, he had become a huge thorn in the side of Democrats who wanted to enact progressive economic policy. The 48th is still a heavily Democratic District. In 2012, Democratic margins ranged from 51.8% to 69.3%.
Tom defied the voters who elected him. For engineering the coup, the minority Republican caucus awarded him the powerful position of “Majority” Leader. He meets and plans strategy with the Republicans. Tom asserts that the Republicans agreed to avoid divisive social issues (Tom supported gay marriage and supports reproductive rights). Tom finds the views of the Republicans on economic issues and the role of government to be more consistent with his outlook. When Tom stands for election again in 2014, a flood of corporate dollars will be donated to defend his seat.
This shift means the Senate Republican Caucus controls what issues get considered.
The legislature must adopt a two-year budget in 2013. The Senate Republican Caucus will insist on cuts to safety net programs, no new revenue, attacks on jobs and union standards of state employees, teachers and city/county employees.
The Supreme Court’s McCleary decision requires the legislature to allocate at least an additional billion dollars to public education. That money will likely come from existing resources. It is difficult to imagine the Senate majority caucus raising new revenue through closing tax loop holes or passing a progressive revenue source. The Senate “Majority” caucus will be promoting an austerity approach to the state fiscal crisis.
What will Governor Inslee and the House Democrats do? My hope is that the House will pass more progressive policies and present the people of our state with a genuine alternative to what the Senate will be promoting. Ultimately, the Senate, the House and the Governor will have to reach an agreement on the budget. Negotiations will be intense, and I would predict, bitter.
The Republican Chair of the Senate Health Care Committee, Sen. Randi Becker of the 2nd Legislative District, was opposed to the Affordable Care Act (and not because she supports universal health care!). How her opposition will impact the expansion of Medicaid eligibility to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (which is fully funded by the federal government and saves the state more than $250 million while covering an additional 250,000 residents) is still to be seen. Additionally, efforts to fund administration of the Health Care Exchange by assessing all insurers who write health care insurance in our state is likely to run into opposition from Sen. Becker, who strongly identifies with the insurance industry.
Because of Republican opposition, the WA State Investment Trust, statewide Paid Sick Day and Family Medical Leave Insurance are not likely to be considered by the State Senate. We hope to pass them through the House in order to create a contrast between the two chambers.
This session is likely to be a theater of contrasts. Many, if not all of the Senate majority caucus will argue that government should get out of the way and let unfettered markets rule the economy. PSARA believes that government needs to expand its role to help create good family jobs, assist those who need the help, address the crisis of climate change and provide quality public education for all. Whose side should government be on?