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Monday, March 4, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Jerry Large
Do I detect forward progress?

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

There was significant motion in the gears of government last week. Where it takes us is still to be sorted out, but more of the movement than I might have expected seems pointed forward.

Congress gave citizens broader protections with renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, the Washington State Supreme Court gave the Legislature back an important tool for doing its job, and the Obama administration added its weight to those urging the U.S. Supreme Court to do right on the matter of sexual equality.

Maybe government is getting out of some of the ruts it’s been stuck in, but only maybe. Sure, the sequester did take effect Friday, but that wasn’t all that happened in government last week.

Our state Legislature has been limited by a requirement that any effort to raise taxes must pass by a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority. One of the reasons we have a representative government is so that more informed people can make the hard choices that benefit the whole. There is a built-in control, the fear of losing votes in the next election.

The state Supreme Court ruled the two-thirds restriction, which was put in place by initiative, was unconstitutional.

Because raising taxes is hard, no reasonable person expects a surge in taxation to follow, but we can hope the Legislature has the will to raise the money it needs to comply with an earlier ruling in which the court said the Legislature hasn’t lived up to the constitutional requirement to fully fund public education. Maybe now the state can fund education without gutting other functions that have already been drained by repeated budget cutting.

Washington state has often been ahead of other states in applying good sense and research-based approaches to social issues, thereby saving taxpayers money in the long term, from early education to court-diversion programs. But absent adequate funding, good ideas can’t live up to their potential. Maybe now we can begin to repair years of damage, even if changing directions is likely to be slow.

One of the ways our state has been out front is in legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases on that issue later this month, and last week the Obama administration filed a friend of the court brief in one of those cases. The administration urged the court to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which took away equal marriage rights in that state. That move by the hyper-cautious Obama signals a significant acceleration in momentum toward national marriage equality.

The president isn’t alone in trying to influence the court. Washington joined more than a dozen other states in filing briefs in that case and in the second case, in which the court is asked to rule on the constitutionality of the odious Defense of Marriage Act.

That act prevents the federal government from treating same-sex marriages the same as different-sex marriages. The court ought to strike it down. With this court no one can count on that, but the surge of support — in government, from businesses and in surveys of Americans — is making it clear we are going to arrive at marriage equality sooner than anyone would have guessed when the act was made law in 1996.

There was a victory last week for progress on another front. The long battle over the Violence Against Women Act ended Thursday with the House accepting the Senate version of the legislation and voting for renewal. Spokane Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was among the leaders of the Republican fight against that version, but eventually voted for it when it became clear she’d lost. Democrats supported the act unanimously, and in the end 87 House Republicans joined them. Bipartisanship can happen sometimes.

All this forward motion is full of caveats, as I’ve said, and there was a reminder last week that vigilance can’t be dropped overnight.

The U.S. Supreme Court held hearings on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, specifically whether the Justice Department should continue as a watchdog over jurisdictions shown to be hostile to minority voters in the past. Those areas with a history of discrimination — mostly in the South — must submit changes in voting procedures to the Justice Department, which can approve or reject them.

Shelby County in Alabama challenged the law, and during arguments Wednesday several justices seemed to lean toward the view that attempts to disenfranchise minority voters is ancient history. They must have missed the last presidential election.

The gears were moving last week, not all of them forward yet, but there was just enough good news to make me think we will get closer to where we need to be by and by.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or Twitter @jerrylarge

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