State government shutdown carries political risk for all

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OLYMPIA — For some members of the Washington state Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus, 2003 remains their favorite year.

That was when a narrow Senate majority controlled by Republicans ran the show in Olympia despite a Democratic governor and a House run by Democratic Speaker Frank Chopp. Reliving that decade-ago glory seems to be driving their strategy this year. They’ve even brought back the architect of 2003, Dino Rossi, as an adviser. Rossi used the narrative of a compassionate, no-new taxes budget to nearly win the governorship the next year.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom was a House Republican that session, before switching to the Democrats and then joining with Republicans to form the MCC. Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler also was in the House that year as were four other members of the MCC.

Serving in the Senate then and now are Senate Republican Caucus Chair Linda Evans Parlette and three other Republicans as well as Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon, who with Tom helped turn the 23-member Republican caucus from the minority to the majority this year.

It’s natural for these politicians to see similarities. Then, as now, the strategy appears to be to paint themselves as the defenders of taxpayers and the Democrats as tax-happy spenders. While Tom tried to soften the brinkmanship Tuesday, other members have said they won’t compromise with the House, that they’re willing to go to — even over — the edge.

As comforting as it might be to think history will continue to repeat and the other side will blink again, it ignores the significant differences between 2003 and 2013.

First, by the time Rossi presented his budget, the Democratic governor — Gary Locke — had already come out with his own no-new-taxes budget, giving Rossi plenty of political cover. But this year, Gov. Jay Inslee has refused to undercut legislative Democrats, supporting their proposed loophole closures and extension of business taxes set to expire (and he does so while claiming neither constitutes a violation of his no-new-taxes campaign pledge).

Second, Chopp had just a two-vote majority in 2003 and couldn’t muster the 50 votes needed for new taxes to stave off cuts to social programs and education. He ended up losing control when the Senate budget passed the House with 39 Republicans and just 28 of his Democrats.

This year, however, Chopp has the votes to pass a budget with new revenue. As the first special session was ending and secret negotiations with the MCC appeared to being going nowhere, Chopp’s Democrats brought out a new plan that made the “tax-and-spend” label tougher to stick on him. The budget adopted last week dumped the business tax extension and only uses revenue increases that the MCC has supported — fixing two existing taxes after state Supreme Court rulings found legal flaws.

House Budget II devotes a meager $700 million toward closing the education funding shortfall known as McCleary (making the Senate’s own $1 billion seem less meager only by comparison). But a separate loophole closure bill would add enough for schools to get within sight of the billion-dollar minimum.

Now comes a third difference between 2003 and 2013, this from Rossi’s own mouth. As reported by Brad Shannon of our statehouse bureau, Rossi said this week that he won the stare-down with Chopp a decade ago because, unlike Democrats, he didn’t want anything except a budget. That left no policy hostages for Chopp to hold in return for concessions on budget and taxes.

Yet the MCC abandoned that strategy last week when current budget chairman Andy Hill said the MCC would consider the new revenue if the House passed key GOP agenda items including more education reform, workers’ compensation reform and a bill lobbied heavily by the payday loan industry.

Wait, payday loans are a key agenda item worth trading revenue for? Anyway, so much for not wanting anything.

A decade is a long time and a government shutdown is again looming, with great political risks for all involved. If that’s to be avoided, members of the Majority Coalition Caucus will need to acknowledge that 2013 is not 2003.

Peter Callaghan can be reached at peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com

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