Searching for balance in Washington’s Legislature
Thanh Tan has tracked legislative politics in Texas, Idaho and now Washington. Below, she answers a common question: “How does Washington compare to those states?”
Times editorial columnist
The Legislature is back — and so am I.
Having spent the better part of the past nine years covering politics in Idaho and Texas, these native Washingtonian eyes of mine are readjusting to a bluer shade of government.
I’m often asked how our Democratic-leaning state compares with those Republican strongholds.
Now and then, I want to shake the questioner and exclaim, “You know what? We’ve got it pretty good here in Washington!”
That’s not meant to be a slight to the GOP. Or praise for Democrats who now control the governor’s office, the House and all but one statewide constitutional office.
I believe we are much stronger when Republicans and Democrats from urban and rural areas coexist and cooperate. They have to. Look at the makeup of our Legislature. The House of Representatives is split 55 to 43. Twenty-three Republicans and two Democrats have formed a coalition to overtake the Senate.
Compare this with Idaho, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by a ratio of nearly 4-to-1 in the 105-member Legislature. They hold every constitutional office, too. Same story in Texas. When I arrived in 2011, the R column in the House had a supermajority — 101 members — compared with 49 in the minority.
One-party domination has weakened debates in both capitols. Democrats have been reduced to floor speeches and stall tactics that do little to persuade the majority. Within the GOP caucus, factions have formed, resulting in some extreme policies that have disproportionately affected students, women and the poor.
Washington has built an alternative system that lends itself more opportunities for balanced outcomes, regardless of which party has strength in numbers.
• Washington legislators are challenged to be efficient because they’re limited to 105 days in odd years; 60 days in even years. Texas meets once every biennium for 140 days — reflective of its small-government ethos, but also unrealistic considering its massive budget and a population that surpasses 25 million. Idaho meets annually with no end date. Past sessions lasted well into the spring. (“The longer they linger, the more damage they’ll do,” was a common saying I used to hear under the rotunda.)
• Setting budgets first requires knowing how much money is in the bank. In Washington, lawmakers and the governor work off the same facts from the nonpartisan Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. Texas revenue forecasts are projected and certified by the comptroller, an elected position currently held by a Republican. Idaho legislators use a “crystal ball” method that amounts to a bipartisan panel listening to forecasters and choosing numbers based on gut feelings. Their often-dueling estimates turn into bickering over what programs should be saved — or cut.
• The Texas Legislature is notorious for its redistricting authority because party loyalists gerrymander legislative and congressional boundaries to their advantage. “Lines equal power,” an Austin attorney once explained to me. Last year, federal courts intervened and redrew maps to recognize gains made by minority populations. Meanwhile, Idaho GOP leaders attempted to oust two Republican commissioners after they voted to reapportion based on numbers, not political expediency. In contrast, Washington avoids hyperpartisanship by having a panel comprising two Democrats, two Republicans and a nonpartisan, nonvoting chair. The goal is a result that produces fair representation.
These mechanisms are wise and protect Washingtonians from possible follies by overzealous holders of power.
On that note, I’m somewhat startled by the level of vitriol aimed at the state Senate’s new Majority Coalition Caucus. Democrat Rodney Tom of Medina and GOP leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville have said they’re focused on creating jobs, reforming education and creating a sustainable budget.
Let’s give them a chance to deliver outcomes the former majority couldn’t.
I can’t imagine such an experiment would ever be attempted in Idaho or Texas. The margins in both places are too lopsided; allegiance to parties and the status quo too strong.
Washington’s situation gives me hope. Democrats control the governor’s office and the House. Their powers are being checked by the Senate.
Balance keeps people honest.
It also forces compromise — a virtue sorely lacking in politics.