While we often lament division in politics, sometimes a house divided can stand strong. Such is the case with the Washington Legislature, where it appears that Republicans have retained control of the Senate and Democrats have retained a majority in the House of Representatives.
Although results are not final (and Republican Vicki Kraft has only a slim lead over Democrat Sam Kim in the 17th District), it looks as though Clark County will send a total of six Republicans and three Democrats to Olympia from its three legislative districts — the same configuration as two years ago. The 17th and 18th districts are leaning Republican for their senator and two representatives, while the 49th will have an all-Democrat delegation. The most notable change is that Lynda Wilson has a sizable lead over Tim Probst in her quest to replace fellow Republican Don Benton in the state Senate.
In recent years, a divided state government has been problematic, with budget negotiations requiring overtime legislative sessions and lawmakers being unable to make progress on court-mandated school funding. But while tensions have been high and compromise has been difficult, this remains a good problem to have. Two-party control in Olympia forces negotiation and consensus, serving as its own version of checks and balances.
Washington has not elected a Republican governor since 1980, and it might be awhile before there is another one; as of Wednesday morning, incumbent Democrat Jay Inslee held a lead of 13 percentage points over challenger Bill Bryant, and the state typically is as blue as a 1903 Picasso painting. With the governor’s mansion in Democratic hands, it is beneficial for the state to have the two parties sharing power in the Capitol.
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If Inslee or any other governor wants to institute a capital-gains tax or hand down strict regulations on carbon emissions, they must make their case, build coalitions, and engage in a little old-fashioned horse trading rather than rely upon a rubber stamp from a friendly Legislature. That give-and-take, while often difficult, is beneficial to the public.
That being said, it is time for the Legislature to find common ground, particularly on the issue of school funding. While incumbents running for re-election this year liked to point out that lawmakers had added billions of dollars for basic education over the past two bienniums, they also had to confess that it was not enough. Beholden to a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. Washington, the Legislature likely will require billions more to live up to its constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” of providing for K-12 public education in the state.
When fully implemented, that will reduce school districts’ reliance upon local levies to pay for items such as teachers’ salaries, but implementation has been slow as lawmakers have been derelict in their duties. This year’s legislative session provided nothing more than the baby step of creating a task force to determine how much money is needed – a step that should have been taken in the infancy of the dilemma.
Republicans have sought to increase school funding without new revenue sources; Democrats have proposed a variety of new taxes. Now a compromise is necessary, with the court’s 2018 deadline looming.
It is likely — no, certain — that we shall lament the slow pace of negotiations and the Legislature’s lack of action during next year’s session. Yet, that is preferable to the alternative, as we embrace the benefits of two-party control in Olympia.