No, not basketball, but political hardball, just down Interstate 5.

March was an interesting month in Olympia, one that state legislators — and the legions of people whose welfare or even livelihood depend on their vicissitudes — will remember a long, long time. 

The fun started on a Friday evening, March 2, when, faced with a hard deadline for passing a state budget, state Senate Democrats found themselves outflanked by a parliamentary move by the minority Republicans. 

Aided by three Democrats who crossed the aisle, the chamber’s 22 Republicans took control of the Senate floor and, early that Saturday morning, passed an alternative budget proposal that nobody had until that evening seen during the entire legislative session. No public hearings or input. No chance to offer amendments. Nothing.

It was the only way a budget bound to be deeply unpopular could possibly have been passed. The Republican coup budget took a $74 million hatchet to state education spending — just as the state Supreme Court had put Washington state on notice that it is failing to live up to its “paramount” constitutional obligation to educate K-12 students. 

It eliminated the Disability Lifeline program, which provides minimal sustenance for thousands of people too disabled to work and not eligible for federal disability payments. It deleted or decimated countless other social-service line items. It eliminated an until-recently bipartisan jobs package. 

(Curiously, the numerous tax loopholes benefiting wealthy corporations remained untouched, as as was the case in the Democrats’ plan.)

Moreover, after passing a budget that the Democratic-controlled House would never touch and the governor would never sign, but guaranteeing a special session for the purpose of reconciling the Senate and House budgets, the “Gang of 25” further threatened to vote again as a bloc to strip Democratic Seattle Sen. Ed Murray of his influential Ways and Means Committee chairmanship if he didn’t negotiate vociferously on behalf of the Senate’s budget — one he hadn’t even seen until a few hours before its passing and which he and his constituents were bound to hate. 

Can you say “ill will”?


Stonewalling on both sides

Anyone who’s ever watched the state Legislature in session knows that Olympia is a small city, but within that city, the Capitol campus is a small town, and the Legislature a very, very tiny village. 

The members must get along to some degree: During the insane grind of a legislative session, they see each other far more than their families, let alone any other human beings. So a declaration of war like this is rare — as in, whole generations pass without this sort of rancor. 

And so, surprisingly, in the weeks since the Republican budget coup, Democrats — who still control the House and the governorship — have decided that they, too, would play hardball. 

(I say “surprisingly” because it takes a lot to get Democrats at any level to show resolve; the Republican  stunt managed it. Only two weeks before, on Feb. 15, Murray and his party had sold out a base constituency, passing a strict Republican-backed teacher evaluation plan — that teachers had no input in crafting and strongly opposed — by a 46-3 margin so as to curry favor with the Republicans on budget negotiations. Gee, that sure bought a lot of Republican kumbaya, didn’t it?) 

By mid-March, with House Democrats flexing their new surgically installed spines and refusing to negotiate with the Senate budget, Republican leader Sen. Joseph Zarelli complained: “We have been waiting.... I don’t know how much longer the public and the press would expect us to sit here and not start making ground.” 

(Well, Joe, maybe you should have thought of that before keeping your budget proposal secret for two months and waiting until the last possible moment to unveil it.) 

But there was method to the Democrats’ stonewalling: They’re calculating, so far correctly, that the longer the public looks at a Senate budget filled with draconian cuts and no revenue increases, the angrier it will get. 

Already, the blowback has been formidable. And, so, March 16, the first capitulation came: The Republican-led Senate bloc unveiled another budget, this one, magically, with all that $74 million in K-12 and higher-education cuts restored. 

But most other cuts were left in place, including a number (like Disability Lifeline) that Democrats call deal-breakers. And, so, at this writing, the stalemate and rancor continue. It’s likely to drag on a while.


Lessons to be applied

There are already two important lessons from the Olympia version of “March Madness.” First is that you can be certain that the date of March 2 is not going to be forgiven, let alone forgotten, by state Democrats for a very long time. Ditto for Republicans remembering the Democratic response. 

The partisan rancor that has characterized the U.S. Congress for years has now set up shop in Olympia, to everyone’s loss.

Secondly, this is exactly what a governorship under Republican dandidate Rob McKenna would look like. McKenna would send to the Legislature a budget proposal Democrats will ignore; Democrats will pass a budget McKenna won’t sign. Sniping, backbiting and nastiness will ensue. 

McKenna — the “education candidate” who was conspicuously silent on his party’s education budget cuts even as the enormous public backlash was forcing his colleagues to back down — tries not to talk about it, but he shares almost all of the ideological priorities of the budget passed by the Senate Republicans. 

Voters would be wise to remember that come November.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on KEXP 90.3 FM.

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