Legislature 2008: Leadership and limits

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

The 2008 session of the Washington State Legislature opened this past Monday, but if you’re expecting too much, you may be disappointed.

This is the “short” 60-day session, although rumors continue that Democrats, who control most everything, would like to be gone in 50 days.

That means a lot of work in a short period of time. It also means that most of the agenda, and therefore the agreements, have already been set.

Why the rush to get done? Well, I know this will shock you, but the reasons are primarily political. That, and not much money to spend, pretty much limit their ability to do much.

What are the political reasons? Well, there are two. First, legislators can’t raise money or campaign until the session is done.

The Senate Democratic majority of 32-17 and the House Democratic majority of 63-35 look pretty solid for the next couple of election cycles, but legislators still want to get home to campaign, and leadership wants to protect some of the weaker seats to keep a firm margin.

The second and bigger reason is the governor. With Republicans reading the same numbers as Democrats, they know their best chance at power-sharing isn’t legislative seats; it’s the corner office with the veto pen.

Despite the fact that things are generally going well in our state, the public is still a little nervous about its pocketbook and Gov. Christine Gregoire is seen as somewhat vulnerable by both parties, based on current polling.

Interestingly, Gregoire has already co-opted her Republican opponent Dino Rossi’s mantra of fiscal restraint. She doesn’t want to come out of the session leaving him with easy fiscal quotes.

So the Democrats want to play defense and get out of town as soon as they can.

Now that’s not to say that there won’t be meaningful legislation considered and passed this session. There will be, but anything with a price tag has probably already been agreed to.

The policy areas to watch are almost always the same. Transportation will be at the forefront. Proposition 1 went down, but it didn’t go away, and the public still wants something done. The viaduct and the 520 bridge are obvious, but South King County has major needs, and the public still wants some kind of mass transportation system.

The flooding in Centralia and Chehalis affected enough people and business that it will get some attention. But the problem didn’t continue long enough to become a major political issue — just long enough to ensure some solutions are found. So look for discussions around the Housing Trust Fund along with a bond proposal to finance I-5 improvements.

There continues to be concern about education funding. There could be movement on sexual predator legislation and the Family Leave Act needs a look, but the costs are too high for full funding.

Large political issues like global warming and climate control will bring pressure from special interest groups on both sides of this issue to open the Growth Management Act (GMA) to scrutiny. However, that is a Pandora’s box most in leadership don’t want to go near.

Can the Democrats retain discipline in the face of a lot of needs? The answer is probably yes. There is too much riding on the political outcomes to try and solve too many problems this session. Some important projects will get through, others will be branded for a “study” and come back next year, and some will be subject to “bill title politics” — great title, but not much substance.

Both parties use this approach because it plays well during elections. So, don’t always believe the title. Read the bill.

Lastly, there are the Seattle Sonics. Nothing on sports teams ever gets done until the last minute. But the Sonics aren’t as popular as the Seahawks and Mariners. Also, they’re not winning. Most believe a deal, if it happens at all, will be made outside Olympia.

Like everything when the Legislature is in session, you never know for sure what will happen until it does, but it will always be interesting. The calendar calls for adjournment March 13.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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