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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Frosty Politics On Display At Washington Capitol

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
This sign at the steps to the Washington statehouse captures more than just the weather conditions.

It’s not just the weather that’s been frosty. So are political relations in the Washington state Capitol.

With split control of the legislature, grueling negotiations have become the norm -- on the budget earlier this year and now on transportation funding. That partisan divide cuts against a refrain you hear a lot in Olympia: “We’re not Washington, D.C.”

But you might think otherwise when you hear exchanges like this one at a recent climate change workgroup meeting. Democratic Governor Jay Inslee and Republican State Representative Shelly Short tangled over state targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Now I’ve heard two members of these committees to see it’s really not that important to meet those targets," said Inslee. "And I think it’s going to be difficult.”

“No, no, no, you started this fight,” responded Short.

“Representative, excuse me for just a moment.”

“You started this fight,” Short said again.

“Just excuse me this moment,” said Inslee.

The tension in the room was in stark contrast to a couple of days last month, when Washington lawmakers and the governor set aside their partisan differences to approve nearly $9 billion in tax incentives aimed at landing Boeing’s 777X assembly line.

Chris Vance, a former Republican state lawmaker and past chair of the Washington State Republican Party, views the Boeing kumbaya moment as an aberration.

“The main thing that I see missing in Olympia -- and even worse in Washington, DC -- is a commitment to compromise,” says Vance.

Consider the protracted budget negotiations in Olympia earlier this year that led to two overtime sessions.

“There are times when you have to go into the room with the other party and say ‘we’re not leaving here without a deal. We’re going to get the best deal we can, but if we have to we’re going to compromise and give up some things we really believe in because we have to make a deal on this,’” said Vance.

In the end, that’s what happened. But it took the threat of an imminent government shutdown to finally hammer out a deal.

Still, House budget chair Ross Hunter, a Democrat, rejects the suggestion Olympia is broken.

“We actually talk to each other, like, in rooms not just the beltway or whatever they do in DC and yeah it took forever.”

But, Hunter believes the proof is in the product, not the process. He notes the final budget won hefty bipartisan support.

Now a similar drama is playing out over a proposed multi-billion dollar gas tax package. Boeing says this is one of its must-haves if it’s going to build the 777X here. The governor uses his bully pulpit to pound home the transportation funding message every chance he gets.

“I’ve been pushing for this since my first day as governor," says Inslee. "And now we now it is an essential piece of our aerospace future, as well as the broader economic future of the state of Washington.”

Negotiations have bogged down over disagreements about transit funding levels and what the Senate majority coalition caucus calls “transportation reforms.” That coalition is a group of 24 Republicans and two breakaway Democrats who took control of the Washington Senate last January.

Republican Curtis King, co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, summed up the state of negotiations on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program.

“I think we’re not that far apart, to be honest with you," he said. "It’s a matter of a few things here and there, but they’re kind of major things.”

The fact it’s taking a while for Democrats and Republicans to negotiate past their differences is no surprise to former Republican governor Dan Evans.

“Big issues of the day don’t succumb to quick answers,” he says.

Evans adds that as long as the two sides are actively negotiating, it's not D.C.-style gridlock.

“I’m not feeling any despair over the lack of a transportation package at the moment," says Evans. "I would be at the end of the legislative session if they haven’t come up with one.”

There’s another multi-billion dollar challenge. The Washington legislature is under court order to amply fund public education. This year, lawmakers made an initial down payment on that ruling. But they still have to come up with another $4 billion to $5 billion over the next two budget cycles.

"I think getting to adequate funding for our school is going to be a multi-year challenge,” says Inslee.

Governor Inslee likens it to climbing Mt. Everest -- one step at a time. He says he’ll be back in 2015 with fresh proposals to eliminate what he calls “unproductive tax loopholes.”

“That’s the next step and we hope that the majority caucus will help in that effort,” he says.

Republican Steve Litzow, who chairs the senate education committee says "“I agree with the governor it’s going to be a multi-year process.” And he doesn’t reject Inslee’s call to eliminate some tax exemptions.

“But that’s going to be a combination of money and reform in the system,” says Litzow.

“Reforms before revenue” has become a Republican mantra around the Capitol. Washington lawmakers return to the Capitol for a short 60-day election year session next month.

The very fact elections are looming will likely harden, not melt the partisan ice.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."