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New Senate coalition pledges governance, not politics
By KYLEE ZABEL
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
OLYMPIA — State Sen. Ed Murray believes 2013 could be “the year of the Grand Bargain" in Olympia.
State House and Senate leaders met Jan. 10 at an Associated Press briefing to discuss their priorities for the legislative session. All agreed to make education funding the No. 1 priority for both houses.
With the formation of the Senate coalition in December, questions were raised concerning the Senate’s ability to work in a bipartisan way.
When asked about his priorities this session, Senate Minority Leader Murray — a Democrat who represents Seattle — said the goal of the body is to govern responsibly. “Legislative bodies, by nature, need to be at points of contention and those different points need to come together,” Murray said, referencing Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers University. “Legislative bodies that work, compromise.”
The Senate is comprised of 26 Democrats and 23 Republicans, but two Democrats — Tim Sheldon of Mason County and Rodney Tom of Medina — sided with the Senate Republicans to form the Majority Coalition Caucus.
On the makeup of this hybrid organization in the Senate, Tom said the coalition will work in a sensible way. “We’re not doing this for window dressing,” said Tom, the coalition’s majority leader.
Nevertheless, there is still some disagreement on its composition. The coalition presently has six Democratic committee chairs and six Republican committee chairs, with three committees planning to be co-chaired by one Democrat and one Republican senator.
Democratic leaders in the Senate are in favor of appointing co-chairs to each committee to make the bodies totally bipartisan but Republicans disagree.
Tom said having co-chairs is not a functional way to approach this session and he would like to play to the strengths of each Senate member, still allowing for power-sharing.
What seemed to be on everyone’s mind Jan. 10 was education, not just on how the body politic might work.
Enumerating his caucus’s priorities, House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-20th District, Chehalis, addressed the looming deadline in the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, directing the Legislature to fully fund K-12 public education by 2018.
To make education the top priority, DeBolt said education funding needs to have a separate budget formed in a “clear and transparent manner” and decided on before any other funding in Washington state. “What is more of a priority than funding it first?,” DeBolt asked.
All legislators in attendance agreed that revenue improvements and reforms are crucial in order to fully address the constitutional mandate on public education funding.
According to Tom, the state currently allocates 43 percent of its budget to education. Increases in education spending haven’t resulted in improvement in student performance.
Murray indicated the state could do more, pointing out that Washington is 36th in the nation in state and local taxes paid per $1,000 of personal income. “When you pay for a bottom-third education system, you get bottom-third results,” Murray said.
Tom said a tax on Internet sales is expected to produce $500 million for education this biennium.
But as discussed at the conference, reforms are needed in order to narrow the achievement gap, the legislators said.
“We need to look beyond just the classroom and teacher,” said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-43rd District, Seattle. To excel in school, a “student needs to be healthy and ready to learn.”
Murray said the achievement gap is directly related to poverty. In order to effectively close the gap, the state must help “grow the middle class by helping those who are not in it,” Murray said.
Debolt countered, “If we’re going to look at the education gap, we can’t just use platitudes and placations about politics … The achievement gap is about putting people back to work in areas with high and persistent unemployment. If we think we’re going to program our way out of it by using big government tactics, we’re in serious trouble.”
The 2013 legislative session began Jan. 14. Murray and his colleagues are excited for this session and are hopeful that compromise can be reached on education funding and other priorities.
“This could be the year … we look like Olympia, not D.C.,” Murray said.