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Updated Monday, January 14, 2013 at 06:31 PM

Senate legislative coalition to take uncertain control Monday

By Andrew Garber
Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — A coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats promises to take control of the Senate on Monday and usher in an era of bipartisan solutions to the most contentious problems facing the state.

"The public out there is hungry for us to come together, to work together in a collaborative manner and that's exactly what this coalition is trying to accomplish," Democratic state Sen. Rodney Tom said last month when the GOP takeover was announced.

Tom is expected to be the new majority leader under the coalition.

In reality, things could be worse than ever.

The Legislature convenes Monday and, so far, Senate leaders can't even agree on who will chair committees.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Ed Murray — soon to be the minority leader — says Republicans are being disingenuous and, far from being bipartisan, have stacked the deck against his party.

The state has a new, untested Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, who will be plopped in the middle of the fight.

And then there's the Republican agenda.

Tom talks about tackling collective bargaining for teachers, considering whether unemployment benefits are too generous, converting the state employee-pension system into something resembling a 401(k), and cutting spending on programs outside of education to shift more money to schools.

A serious push along those lines could turn Olympia into a mini-Wisconsin, where a fight over GOP efforts to curtail union collective-bargaining rights two years ago effectively paralyzed the state Legislature.

Even if the Republican coalition managed to pass legislation similar to what Tom outlined, there's House Speaker Frank Chopp, his unrelenting defense of traditional Democratic priorities, and a solid majority to back him up.

House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, doubts Tom's to-do list would go anywhere in the House.

"It is the stuff that makes the Legislature melt down," Hunter said.

Last session's hints

In hindsight, there were indications going back almost a year that this could happen.

Last session, Senate Republicans with the help of three Democrats, including Tom, took control of writing the budget in the Senate but left Democrats ostensibly in control of the chamber for everything else.

Then the Democrats lost a seat in the election, narrowing their majority. Republicans persuaded Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, to cross party lines and give the GOP a 25-to-24 vote majority.

The new coalition announced its plans in December and has since kicked the Democrats out of their digs off the Senate chamber and are prepared to install Tom into what would have been Murray's office.

On Monday, a protracted floor fight is expected. In the end, at least a couple of Democratic senators are likely to accept offers of committee chairmanships from the GOP, but not caucus with the Republicans.

With that initial drama out of the way, the Legislature will turn to its biggest problems: plugging a budget shortfall and increasing funding for education to meet a state Supreme Court mandate.

Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget office projects that for the state to cover all of its obligations under current law, and do things such as restore pay cuts for state workers, the Legislature would need to increase general-fund spending by nearly $3 billion — to a total of $33.3 billion.

Many lawmakers say the state needs to find another $1 billion or more to meet the court's education mandate.

However, state tax collections are expected to increase $2 billion over the next two fiscal years as the economy recovers from a prolonged downturn.

Some of that money must go into the state's rainy-day account, so it would cover less than half the projected gap when education funding is included.

The fundamental debate this session will revolve around whether the state can close its budget shortfall and boost education spending by making government more efficient and limiting growth in state programs. Or, is additional tax revenue needed to help close the gap?

Democrats say that after dealing with several years of multibillion-dollar shortfalls, there's not much left to cut and taxes will be needed.

Senate Republicans have argued the additional tax revenue from a recovering economy should provide enough money to both plug the budget shortfall and put more money into education.

New coalition

Many GOP lawmakers see their newfound control as an opportunity to tackle issues that Democrats have historically beaten back. But it's not clear to what extent the new coalition is united.

For example, Tom wants to look at having the governor and state Legislature approve contracts for K-12 teachers instead of having those contracts bargained district by district. Currently, the governor's office negotiates contracts for unionized state workers but not school teachers.

Under the new approach, the state would bargain salary and benefits for teachers and "the districts would be more employment-type issues instead of pay-scale issues," Tom said.

However, although several GOP senators mentioned taking on collective bargaining for teachers, Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, indicated it was not a priority.

"We haven't had that out there before and I don't know it's going to be there this year," he said. "I think it's right to have concerns about it, but I don't know that rises to the highest priority level."

Along the same lines, the main message from the Senate GOP coalition has been that taxes will not be used to fix the budget, but at a recent news conference, Republican Sen. Steve Litzow wasn't so sure.

When asked if taxes were on the table as part of a budget solution, Litzow said, "Right now everything is on the table."

Litzow, R-Mercer Island, is expected to be the new chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

Hunter said he's not sure what to expect out of the state Senate this year.

"It's not like I know what they want to do and I disagree," Hunter said. "I don't know what they want to do. They don't know what they want to do."

Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business and a veteran observer of the Legislature, said he's just as uncertain.

"We're cutting new ground," he said. "I don't think anybody knows how it is going to work."

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or seattletimes.com">agarber@seattletimes.com

State legislative session begins

House and Senate convene at noon Monday.

Gov. Chris Gregoire delivers her final State of the State address at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Jay Inslee sworn in as governor at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Follow legislation and contact lawmakers at leg.wa.gov or by calling 800-562-6000.

Watch sessions and committee hearings on TVW (tvw.org, Comcast cable channel 23).

Look for breaking news on seattletimes.com


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