House leaders challenged by bad choices
By Jan Teague, President/CEO
Washington Retail Association
There were few good choices left for the Democrat leaders in the Washington State House of Representatives as they debated the final hours of the 2012 legislative session. They were forced to accept a lot of what the State Senate wanted or risk another special session that would keep the Democrats from fundraising for their re-elections. Another extension would have made them look bad. The public keeps watching these debates and wondering what takes so long.
It grew evident that the House Democrat resistance was fueled by unions. Three issues that unions care about were causing the delays: public school employee health insurance offerings consolidated (takes control out of unions’ hands); future (new) public employee pension plan cuts (unions hate this benefit cut); and a four-year budget planning bill (it changes the unions’ power in the legislature).
Some Democrats don’t care how they look to the public because they are in safe seats or they are not running (Governor Gregoire, for instance). And, they have a strong belief that the new Governor is likely to be Rob McKenna who will be fiscally conservative as the state recovers from the long grinding recession. So they resisted until they had no choice. They got a few compromises, but essentially, the Democrat leaders doing the negotiations unwillingly ended debate and agreed to take the votes needed to end the session.
But the reality was that many Democrats in the Senate voted for two of these bills last Saturday, so some Democrats believe the final three budget ideas will help the state. For instance, the school employee health insurance bill passed the Senate 29-17. Senator Karen Kaiser, D-Des Moines, her party’s expert on health care, voted for it. The budget bill passed the Senate 30-16 with 10 Democrats voting in support.
Governor Gregoire proposed the pension reform idea last year and now that the Senate Republicans have embraced the measure, it seems to have chilled the Democrats’ interest. It’s pretty hard to politically explain the philosophical split among the Democrats and their governor, other than union resistance.
That gets back to my point that what was really going on was the unions desperately trying to kill these ideas and putting as much pressure as they could on Democrats who they thought they could get to vote their way.
I see no unintended consequences for the taxpayers and no job loss for state employees. These ideas were passed by the Legislature with some changes. I think most people would agree that the Democrats needed to shrug their shoulders at the unions and admit they were stuck, say they were sorry, and that they had to get on with making their decision. Political thinking is shifting and conservative philosophies will be demanded by voters who have already faced their own budget problems and done something about it.