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Originally published July 6, 2013 at 1:58 PM | Page modified July 6, 2013 at 7:42 PM

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Session’s partisan stalemate may portend future gridlock

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and state lawmakers spent much of the legislative session in a partisan stalemate. Will the future be any different?

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — There were times, Gov. Jay Inslee suggests, when he should have held his tongue instead of taking a poke at Senate Republicans this year.

“I used some language early in the session that probably ruffled some feathers unnecessarily,” he reflected in an interview last week.

Inslee wouldn’t repeat the comments he’d like to take back, but one of them might have been when he referred to Senate GOP arguments for not voting on gun control or abortion measures as “a fairly pathetic excuse for inaction.”

The criticism, which came less than a month after he took office, was an early sign that nothing would go well over the next few months — for anybody.

Lawmakers spent months locked in a bitter partisan stalemate that threatened to shut down state government. Some fear it portends more gridlock in the future.

Each party succeeded in shooting down bills considered a top priority for the other side, such as requiring insurance companies to cover abortions, making changes to the state workers’ compensation system, or passing a $10 billion tax package to pay for transportation projects.

Although the Legislature ultimately passed a two-year, $33.6 billion budget that plows an additional $1 billion into K-12 education and prevents higher-education tuition increases for at least a year, lawmakers completed their work only under the threat of state offices closing on July 1.

And despite all the back-patting at the end of the session, they did not find a long-term fix for the state’s education money troubles. Many expect another battle over funding when lawmakers have to write a new two-year budget.

“Olympia is beginning to look a lot like Washington, D.C.,” said Paul Berendt, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “I just think we’re going to see more and more high-stakes negotiations that are settled at the last moment.”

Some of the head-bashing this year was predictable.

Republicans took control of the state Senate for the first time in eight years, and divided government generally leads to more conflict. Plus, you had a new governor still learning the ropes.

Both sides said they’ve learned from the session and hope to avoid this kind of gridlock in the future.

They’ll likely get their first real test in 2015. Forecasts project another hole in the state budget, once the state Supreme Court mandate for additional K-12 funding is factored in, with no easy place to get more money.

Unresolved issues

The next legislative session, just six months away, should theoretically be a cakewalk.

Legislators don’t have to write a full budget next year and the state economy appears to be on the mend, finally.

Yet many of the issues that proved so divisive this year will more than likely resurface, including the push for a transportation tax package.

The $10 billion proposal that included a 10.5 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, died in the Senate last month after Republicans would not allow a vote. Both parties have said they plan to take it up again next session.

It is not clear if lawmakers will once again retreat to their ideological bunkers and blow up each other’s bills. But at least there should not be the threat of government shutdown, given that they just passed a two-year budget.

The 2015 legislative session is a different matter, in part because of the way lawmakers wrote this year’s budget.

The compromise reached by Republicans and Democrats included roughly $1 billion in short-term moves, such as fund transfers from the state construction budget, assumptions that the state could save money by operating more efficiently, and keeping readily accessible reserves to a bare minimum.

What that means, said House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, is the Legislature will have to come up with that same amount of money all over again in the future.

Plus find even more money on top of that to meet the state Supreme Court mandate for education funding.

“In terms of ... what it is going to feel like when we come back to town, it is going to be very much like we were” this year, said David Schumacher, the governor’s budget director.

Republicans, noting an improving economy, are somewhat less pessimistic.

“Let’s start compromising”

Even if the economy creates a sudden windfall, the question remains: Did lawmakers learn anything from the gridlock of this past session that can help them avoid a repeat in 2015?

When asked that question, both Inslee and Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom talked about the need to make a better case to the public about their positions.

“The public needs to be an active player here,” Inslee said. “They need to express how they feel about ... the obstreperous conduct that drove us to the brink of government shutdown.”

However, he also spoke about working with the other side.

“This job always involves multiple responsibilities,” Inslee said. “Using the bully pulpit, inspiring people, bringing to light things the public needs to know, using powers of persuasion ... Use of one tool too much at the wrong time can be suboptimal. I probably did that early in the session a time or two.”

Inslee said he’s a better governor now than he was six months ago.

“I think the principal thing is I’ve learned it takes time and diligence to develop relationships that help us smooth tensions that can exist when we are trying to break through some of these challenges, and that takes effort and some time and I think we’ve developed relationships here and will continue to build those over time,” he said.

State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, sees a battle ahead regardless, over funding for education versus other state services. “You have to put that first dollar in to education,” he said. “The debate you will see ... is how are you going to fund non-education services.”

But Litzow thinks the past few months helped clear the air. “At this point everybody realizes both sides are very serious about what they want to do. We’re not going give in. They’re not going to give in. We can’t wait each other out, so let’s start compromising to figure out how to find a middle ground. ”

Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington, thinks there’s truth to that.

“As they learn the position of everyone it will become more predictable and both sides will not introduce bills that they know will just create headaches. They will start with more moderate positions — in theory,” he said.

If the Legislature goes “down to the wire of a government shutdown again with 95 percent of the exact same actors, it makes no sense,” Barreto said. “It means you are doing it on purpose.”

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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