Divided legislature will face major challenges

With a slim Republican majority in the state Senate and a Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives, compromise will be the order of the day at the Jan. 13 opening of the 58th Legislature.

“It will cause more compromise,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. “We will have a divided government with the split Legislature, and that will be good for the citizens because issues will be debated out in the open and it will just be a much more visible process.”

The Republicans will have a 25-24 majority in the Senate, since Whatcom county Sheriff Dale Brandland defeated incumbent Democrat Georgia Gardner of Blaine. And the Democrats have gained three seats in the House, claiming a 52-46 majority this election season.

This split Legislature will be tasked with reconciling a roughly $2 billion deficit in the state budget, creating job stability in a sluggish economy and dealing head-on with transportation and highway concerns.

“I hope they can work together, because the state really needs the help,” said Kitsap Republican Party chairwoman Shirley Brown. “What we need is a good show of leadership for the people.”

John Morgan, chairman of the Democratic Central Committee of Kitsap County, said next year will be difficult, although not necessarily because of the split.

“There will be a lot of compromise politics going on,” he said. “The Legislature has a tough, tough job ahead of it. There is the deficit, and an electorate that says we’re not going to give you any more money.”

Senators representing Kitsap largely agree the state’s operating budget and job development will key the next legislative session – even above transportation problems despite the failure of Referendum 51, a $7.7 billion state road and transit plan that hinged on a 9-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase.

“We Republicans need to work together with everyone,” said Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard.

Oke defeated his Democratic challenger Betti Ringlee to secure his re-election this year, and was named chairman of the Parks, Fish and Wildlife Committee.

“We have encouraged our folks to not have a bitter taste in their mouths because of the election season,” Oke said. “With a one seat difference, we need to work together.”

Oke says the Senate should come up with some innovative job-growth ideas this next session.

“We have 26 votes,” he said.

That is, 26 votes, counting Sheldon, a Democrat, who is known to be more closely aligned with the Republicans in terms of fiscal policies and economic development.

“If it has to do with job development, Sheldon is right there with us,” Oke said.

Sheldon, who was considered among Republicans to chair the Senate’s committee on economic development, agrees.

“The economy will be our biggest issue,” he said. “And those concerns will cut across all committees, including land-use, natural resources. Bills that would never have seen the light of day will be considered because of their economic impact.”

Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, recently re-elected as floor leader for the Democrats, said the Senate should be able to work together well this next year.

“The Republicans are in the same situation we were in last year,” she said. “You pretty much have to work together if we want to be successful.”

Sheldon, no relation to Tim Sheldon, does predict that there might be some testiness next year among Senators, since the Republicans have named new chairs for the committees.

“There could be some flexing of muscles,” she said.

In terms of reconciling the state operating budget, Sheldon said she isn’t overly concerned about the Senate majority, since there are some moderate Republicans in that more deliberative of chambers.

“They have to go back home to their constituents, too,” she said. “If it’s just an all-Republican budget, that doesn’t speak well. It will have to be bi-partisan. We need to find a common vision. We have been able to work together in the past and I am confident we can carry that forward.”

As for transportation, few lawmakers and political analysts are holding out hope for a solution to Referendum 51’s failure next year.

“I very much doubt that they will come up with anything,” Morgan said. “What voters of Washington State will have to get used to are a lot of unrepaired potholes, highways to nowhere and a lot more gridlock.”

Sheldon, of Potlatch, agrees a solution could take some time.

“It will take the Legislature awhile to mull over what the voters have said,” he said. “It is evident what the voters are saying. I think they feel there is a lack of accountability in government. Any package will have to be more directly defined, with clear timelines, clear start and stop dates and accountability.”

Sen. Oke predicts it could take the Legislature a couple of years before another comprehensive package is put together, and that it could be up to the House to come up with some solutions.

“We took the tough vote last year,” Oke said, referring to the Senate’s bi-partisan approval of what became Referendum 51. “So it could be that the Senate won’t do something until the House takes it on.”

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