Opinion

Political posturing in the Legislature | Bob Roegner

Just when you thought the fun was over for a while, it’s time for the Legislature to meet again. This is a state election year — with all the House of Representatives and half of the state Senate up for election. That means it’s a short session of 60 days, and everyone will want to finish on time and go home to campaign.

The two overriding themes will be money and power. Money, of course, means the state budget, which continues to give the Democrats headaches. Gov. Christine Gregoire presented her budget, but also said she didn’t like it because of all the cuts and the negative effect it would have on important services the state provides.

In 2009, a budget gap of more than $9 billion was closed after a lot of painful decisions. Now, the state faces a new shortfall of about $2.6 billion. With the Democrats in control, they have more difficult choices to make. Maybe too difficult.

Democrats view themselves as the party of people in need: The elderly, disabled, infirm, labor and the working poor — in general, those who need help. But these are many of the groups who have felt the budget cuts most severely. As a result, there is some unrest among the Democrats, many of whom feel that there have been enough cuts already. That has led to several trial balloons mentioning the possibility of tax increases. While no one really wants to raise taxes, many feel not raising them will potentially harm too many people. State Treasurer Jim McIntire recently warned the Legislature that without changes, the state treasury could be depleted by September, which leads to the next issue — power.

Right now, the Democrats have it and the Republicans want it back. If Democrats raise taxes, the sales tax being the most likely, the Republicans have a ready-made campaign issue for the fall. Many Democrats in the Puget Sound area could vote for a tax increase and survive an election, but many in other parts of the state couldn't. If the Republicans can pick up a few seats this fall, they will be in a very good position two years from now to have a legitimate chance at taking the governor’s office and at least one of the two houses.

Some Democrats are also floating other ideas such as legalizing marijuana. While there is almost no chance such a bill could actually pass, it does give Republicans significant campaign fodder.

The Democrats are still in a good position to avoid putting themselves in political jeopardy, but it won’t be easy. If they do look at taxes, they are going to have to make a compelling case that connects with voters in a very personal way. In this environment, that’s a big risk.

The other question is whether the Republicans can maintain enough political discipline to capitalize on any Democratic openings.

Watch closely. The issues are important, but also remember, some of it is just political posturing. The challenge is figuring out which is which.

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