The new ‘bipartisan’ coalition in Olympia | Bob Roegner

The 2013 legislative session might be one of the most interesting in the past two decades.

Rather than the Democrats controlling the state Senate, 26-23, Republicans (with the help of two conservative Senate Democrats) will be in charge, 25-24.

Sens. Rodney Tom (D-Medina) and Tim Sheldon (D- Potlatch) made a deal with 23 Senate Republicans to form what they are calling a coalition government.

Coalition leaders say this is what the public wants: cooperative bipartisan government. Tom will become majority leader and Sheldon becomes president pro-tempore, filling in for Lt. Gov. Brad Owen as president of the Senate when necessary.

Despite the terminology spin, formation of the coalition wasn’t a negotiated power-sharing agreement between the Democrats and Republicans that will encourage cooperation and bipartisan government. It was a political coup. One set of politics is being substituted for another as Republicans take most of the real power. And it’s a coup everyone has seen coming since the last legislative session when Tom and Sheldon were joined by former Sen. Jim Kastama to give the Republicans control of the Senate budget.

Anticipating that Tom and Sheldon might be moving to support the Republicans, the Democrats worked hard to gain a majority in the elections. It came down to the race between House member Tim Probst and longtime Republican Sen. Don Benton in Clark County. Benton survived by 78 votes. Had Probst won, the Democrats would have had the magic 27 votes and could have retained control, even with Tom and Sheldon voting with the Republicans.

Tom likely would not have held a position of power with the Democrats because they don’t have a lot of trust in him. He was originally elected as a Republican, then switched parties to become a Democrat. In 2010, after the switch, he was given an influential role in developing the Democratic budget. He then voted against the budget he helped write. Then last session, he sided with Republicans on the budget. And more recently, he caucused with the Democrats and voted for Ed Murray (D-Seattle) as the Democratic leader, without disclosing his plans to unite with the Republicans.

Neither Tom nor Sheldon say that they are changing parties, but the welcome mat will not be out for them when the Democratic caucus meets. Insiders note that Tom could have voted with the Democrats on procedural matters such as majority leader and committee assignments. But making himself majority leader gives his decision the appearance of a self-serving power grab. He will likely caucus with Republicans.

In the short term, the move cost Sen. Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way) the chairmanship of the Senate Transportation committee, although she will still be a member of the committee.

However, Joe Fain (R-Auburn) will become majority floor leader. Both are talented, with deep South King County roots, and they have worked well together.

Republicans have offered Democrats some committee co-chairmanships. But whether the Democrats agree to the arrangement or play the role of the minority party may determine how the session unfolds. Fain has a strong belief that the coalition can work, and it may. Only time will tell.

But the bigger issue to watch is how the politics of the Senate affect K-12 education, higher education, transportation and social services in the budget. Tom isn’t interested in new taxes and seems disinclined to take the Supreme Court seriously on funding education. Democrats will want more money for education as will some moderate Republicans, including Fain and possibly new budget chair Andy Hill (R-Redmond), who are supporters of both K-12 and higher education. But what if the trade-off is lower funding for services to seniors, the disabled or others in need?

Will the coalition last, and how long will Tom be its leader? He got the nice office just off the Senate floor, but how long will he have the power? He deserted the Republican party once and their trust in him may not last long.  Since both parties are likely to run candidates against Tom in 2014, the Republicans may not give their new leader much latitude.

In Olympia, getting things done depends on two things: power and trust. Who has the power and who do you trust? There isn’t a lot of trust coming from the Senate chambers right now. The power could be fluid and the Democrats still control the governor’s office and the House.

All the players want good government. But there is a significant difference between Republicans’ and Democrats’ view of what constitutes good government.


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