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Originally published March 13, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified March 19, 2010 at 9:25 PM

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Why Sen. Rodney Tom crafted budget, then voted no

Sen. Rodney Tom finds himself at odds with many of his fellow Democrats over taxes. His position is an indication of how complex it is to get legislators to agree on a budget.

Seattle Times political reporter

OLYMPIA — When Margarita Prentice, head of the state Senate's powerful budget committee, sent bouquets of flowers to her Democratic colleagues last week, one senator's desk was left bare.

Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, is No. 2 to Prentice on the Senate Ways and Means Committee and a key budget writer. But he didn't get a vase of flowers.

"Why would he?" said Prentice, D-Renton. "He is obviously a very conflicted individual."

Tom irritated many of his fellow Democrats — and diminished his power as a top budget negotiator — when he voted against his own caucus' budget and an $800 million tax package to pay for it.

Tom's dissent is just one example of the difficulty facing Democrats as they try to cobble together a menu of tax increases and cuts to close the state's $2.8 billion budget gap.

Democrats hold huge legislative majorities, outnumbering Republicans 61-37 in the House and 31-18 in the Senate. But that doesn't mean Democrats all agree on how to fix the budget. Some, like Tom, think they should cut more before raising taxes.

As lawmakers begin a special session Monday to finish budget talks, top Democrats say they'll still rely on Tom's technical budget expertise. But he probably won't have much say about what goes in the final product.

"I view him as part of the team because he has worked hard ... but because there is a trust issue around his vote, he won't be the key decision-maker he might have been before that vote," said Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, Democratic caucus chairman, who called the disagreement civil.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said Tom's vote was "not well-received."

The expansion of the Democratic majority in recent years has included the addition of more conservative suburban lawmakers from districts that used to vote Republican.

Tom reflects that shift as well as anyone.

A lanky real-estate agent who likes to climb mountains and run marathons, Tom was elected to the state House as a Republican in 2002, but switched parties in 2006.

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He went on to beat Republican Luke Esser, now the state party chairman, to represent the 48th District in the state Senate.

Regarded as a sharp number cruncher with a head for details, Tom spent countless hours assembling the details of the Senate Democrats' budget plan last month.

Yet when it came time to vote on the Senate floor, Tom was one of six Democrats who voted with Republicans against an $800 million tax bill to pay for it. The bill passed by a slim 25-23.

He also was one of two Democrats to vote against the Senate appropriations bill last month.

In voting against his caucus's budget, Tom said he was especially worried about the proposed three-tenths of a penny sales-tax increase.

"The inclusion of a sales tax, I think, is very harmful to an economy that is trying to recover," he said.

Tom did vote with his party to suspend Initiative 960, the measure requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for tax increases.

He believes some taxes should be raised and voted with the majority to increase cigarette taxes $1 a pack to preserve subsidized health insurance for the poor.

But Tom said he was frustrated Democrats appear to be refusing to consider serious reforms and reductions of state government even as they raise taxes.

For example, Tom couldn't get anywhere with his bill to eliminate The Public Printer, the state's print shop, which has been around since 1854.

"If we got rid of the state printer, the average Washingtonian wouldn't notice it one iota," he said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers don't have enough money to adequately fund public schools — the state's paramount constitutional obligation.

"It's embarrassing," Tom said.

He knows some of his objections didn't go over well with many colleagues — and that he may be bumped down in power within the Democratic caucus.

Because he voted against the budget, Tom won't be on the conference committee negotiating differences with the House. And he may not retain his vice-chairmanship of Ways and Means next year if he gets re-elected.

"I'm a big boy. I fully understand that. I knew that when I cast my vote," Tom said. "I needed to stand on the principles of my constituents."

Brown, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1992, could not recall another top budget negotiator voting against a budget bill he helped write.

It's not just the budget vote, Prentice said. Tom also has "messed" with fellow Democrats' bills by tacking on unwanted amendments.

"We're there to help the system work, not to knife people in the back and screw up their bills," she said.

For all his disagreements with Democrats, Tom said he doesn't regret joining the party. He'd feel more alone on the other side of the aisle where Republicans are "still completely dominated by the religious right."

Tom's loner stance could leave him in a precarious position for re-election this fall. Some traditional Democratic supporters, such as unions, may be unenthusiastic.

And Republicans hope to take him down. A Republican challenger, Gregg Bennett, already has raised more than $110,000. Tom has raised $36,000.

Jim Brunner: 360-236-8267 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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