It’s that time of year again when the storms, snow and dark days are at their apogee. Much like the swallows return to Capistrano, so does the Legislature return to Olympia.
However, many may not be all that wild about going. Statistics suggest many of us showed enough confidence in the economy to incease our spending at Christmas, but it wasn’t nearly enough. In our state, we primarily rely on sales tax and property tax, neither of which is doing very well. The state budget for the next two years still shows a shortfall of about $5 billion.
Most legislators go to Olympia to do the public’s business and try and make all of our lives better in some way. But in this session, there isn’t going to be much good.
Citizens who need help such as seniors, the disabled and the poor may find thier lives significanly worse off with no other options.
Cities and counties are laying off staff and cutting back on programs their voters like. School districts and higher education are facing cutbacks. For those who think you can “just cut out the fat,” the easy cuts were made two sessions ago. Education takes up about half the state budget and much of what is left — bond payments, corrections and mandatory payments — isn’t available to be cut.
But while it will be a very difficult session, it may also yield some of the most dramatic debates in recent memory.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed several bold, if potentially controversial, measures. We have the biggest ferry system in the country and she has proposed turning it into a regional ferry system, something like Sound Transit, that would be governed by local officials. Next, she proposed establishing a new department of education that would put all levels of education under one director reporting to her. Those are significant issues for the Legislature to deal with.
Other issues to watch are possible tolls on I-405 and Highway 520. There’s a need to fund a solution to flooding in the Green River Valley, and there will be moves to micromanage cities’ red light photo enforcement.
State Sen. Tracey Eide (D-30th District) will be one of the most important leadership figures to watch as will be Democratic Senate leader Lisa Brown of Spokane (3rd District), who could be interested in running for governor. Also in the Senate, watch newcomer Joe Fain (R-47th District), as he will be a future player. A veteran to watch, now that the Republicans have cut the Democrats’ control margin, is Pam Roach (R-31st District). She not only has an amazing ability to get re-elected, but with her estrangement from her caucus, she has the freedom to vote with either party. Roach has a lot of support from labor, which makes her valuable in Olympia.
In the House, Speaker Frank Chopp continues as the most dominant legislative figure.
New legislators such as Republicans Katrina Asay (30th District) and Mark Hargrove (47th District) will be interesting to watch as they must learn very quickly.
It will not be a fun place because everything will be about cuts, but there is an opportunity born of necessity to remake state government.
As always, political futures are at stake and will raise and fall in 2012, based on who accomplishes what in this session. Go and visit if you get the chance. It is always interesting.