A Divided Legislature
By Jeff Johnson, President, Washington State Labor Council
When Senators Rodney Tom (LD 48) and Tim Sheldon (LD 35), with much fan-fare, broke with the Senate Democratic Caucus and formed the Senate Republican Majority Coalition Caucus (RMCC), their message was that the Senate would run in a truly bi-partisan fashion – the state Senate would break new ground and govern from the middle.
That didn’t last long. Policy bills attacking the injured worker safety net, family leave insurance, paid safe and sick leave, public employee pensions, part-time public employee health benefits, collective bargaining for teachers, etc., etc., stacked up in the Rules Committee and the Senate floor waiting action. Rather than governing from the middle, the RMCC was clearly waging an attack on the middle class.
When the RMCC unveiled their “no new revenue” operating budget the charade was complete. “Bi- partisanship” became a mask for a seriously divided legislature and “reform” became code for long sought partisan policy changes.
Taking a page out of the Republican play book in Congress, the RMCC held the operating and capital budgets hostage to a list of 33 policy bills that had no real connection to the budget.
A particular favorite was SB 5127. This bill would have expanded the age at which seriously disabled injured workers could enter into “compromise and release agreements”, a step towards privatizing our workers’ compensation system. SB 5127 was offered up in exchange for various revenue bills, including Brakken and Telecon, and some say for the transportation revenue package. A serious game of whack a mole played out during the two “Special Sessions” as SB 5127 kept popping up as trading bait.
The Department of Labor and Industries announced in June that the original 2011 fiscal note booking savings from “compromise and release” agreements had been grossly exaggerated to the tune of $250 million. Despite that, he RMCC blindly went forward arguing that SB 5127 would save the workers’ compensation system and the business community great sums of money. Apparently the RMCC favors the adage of never allowing facts to get in the way of a good political argument.
The great irony of the session is that many of the working family policies that came under attack, like family leave insurance and paid safe and sick leave, are common sense middle ground policies that historically enjoy huge public support and are part of the “common good” in most of our major international trade agreements. In 2013 it shouldn’t be this difficult to enact family friendly employment policies.
The great tragedy of the session was the refusal of the RMCC to take up the voting rights act and access to state higher education financial aid for “dreamers”. A measure of the character of our state is in the way we address fundamental civil rights. In both cases the RMCC failed our state. Communities of color ought to have a mechanism in place that allows them to challenge a voting system that, for all intents and purposes, excludes their representation of choice. “Dreamers,” the children of immigrant workers, who contribute to the richness of our communities and the hopes for our future, should have the financial opportunity to attend institutions of higher education in our state.
Another great tragedy of the session was not passing the transportation revenue package. The package was open to adjustments all throughout the legislative sessions but there was no desire on the part of the RMCC to pass any package. Given there was no vote in the Senate and only one Republican vote in the House, it is clear that the business community had no impact for their efforts.
If we lose $850 million of federal money for the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) bridge, and have to pay back to the federal government another $170 million, we will have made a bad decision of colossal proportions. The CRC is critical to the economic vitality of the Pacific Northwest and Washington State.
Finally, passing a transportation package would have been the best thing we could have done to put people back to work and to generate future revenue for our State’s operating budget and needs.
In the final analysis the legislature increased funding to K-12 education by about $1 billion but did so not by eliminating tax exemptions for the wealthy, as championed by the Governor and the House Democrats, but rather by sweeping the public works trust and other accounts, not paying the I-732 COLAs, and relying on increased revenue projections and falling case load projections. We had an opportunity to do so much more if the RMCC had been open to closing the income disparity gap some. They were not, and are not likely to be in the future.
The battle now shifts to educating the public in various legislative districts. This is where we can make a difference.
Jeff Johnson is also a PSARA member