State of emergency

ON MONDAY, the Washington Legislature begins its 2002 session with a unique combination of opportunity and catastrophe.

Because the state passes its budget for two years at a time, off-year legislative sessions like 2002 can usually focus on all the things that get set aside during the invariably all-consuming budget battles—of the type that went into triple overtime last summer. And this year, for the first time since 1998, legislators have an opportunity to break the paralyzing gridlock that resulted when the Democrats and Republicans had a dead-even 49-49 split in the state House of Representatives. That tie meant that agreement was required from both parties to even have a bill considered in committee—a kiss of death for any contentious proposal.

Now the public will expect, and the Legislature wants, the sort of clear leadership that was impossible from the outset for the past three years. And they'll specifically expect it from the Democratic Party, which, at least on paper, controls both houses and the governor's mansion.

But that control isn't a whole lot stronger than it was last year: The Dems' new House majority is one vote, as is their Senate advantage, and in both cases there are several legislators capable of bolting to the Republican side on any given issue. As for the governor, Gary Locke's politics have more in common with moderate Republicans than some of the more extreme Republicans themselves. That is, when Locke has politics: His unwillingness to take strong stands unless left with no choice has fatally crippled progress on making hard budget and transportation choices in the past and has left the door wide open for Tim Eyman to determine much of the state's political agenda.

Thus armed, the Democrats will face this year's catastrophe: a $1.25 billion budget shortfall, even after the state's emergency reserves are used, on a budget that was passed only six months ago. Locke has already come forth with his suggested fixes, which involve a lot of budget cuts and a handful of revenue increases that don't begin to touch the breaks given to businesses throughout the '90s. Many of those cuts will be permanent; even when the region's economy rebounds, a decade's worth of anti-spending initiatives ensures that the state cannot resume spending at anything near the pace with which it will now cut. And both Locke and the Republicans are vowing to oppose tax increases as part of the way out of the conundrum.

The one tax Locke has been willing to advocate is an increase in the gas tax, and that may or may not survive the legislative process. For two years in a row, passing a transportation bill has been identified as the Legislature's top program priority, and it has failed. Hopefully, desperation will lead to some compromises this year; if the anger of gridlocked voters doesn't do it, perhaps the costs to business will. But beyond the budget and transportation, there are a number of other urgent issues likely to slip under the public's radar:

*Shoreline rules—in which commercial interests are poised to trump the annoying desire of plants and animals to survive.

*Foster care reform—in which there are too many kids, not enough parents, not enough funding, too many pedophiles, and an overall system so fouled up that many teens bolt for the streets rather than submit to it.

*Health care costs—for state employees and the state's Basic Health Plan and for the damage to patients caused by the Legislature's caving in to the health insurance industry two years ago.

*Steps to stimulate the flagging economy—which, in the name of a "more competitive business environment," could easily degenerate into the sorts of extra corporate welfare and cushy tax breaks that never go away, even when the recession does.

And so on. A host of lesser issues will also be considered, and, unless they generate both broad consensus and procedural luck, eventually forgotten. In any given off-year session, over 2,000 bills are introduced, to be read, vetted, and voted upon by 147 part-time legislators in 60 days. Fat chance. The long queue of urgent issues that invariably awaits Olympia each January ensures that most legislators don't even have the chance to read the bills they vote on—it's simply not humanly possible. As a result, anonymous staff people and lobbyists, well away from the glare of public scrutiny or accountability, wind up writing and reading the state's new laws. Every January brings the fresh reminder: Washington needs a full-time Legislature.

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