OLYMPIA — State Senate Democrats are in the curious position of explaining why they helped pass a budget they don’t like.
The Republican-driven proposal throws an additional $1 billion into basic education, without additional taxes, but also has cuts Democrats rail against, including reduced spending on services for the working poor and disabled.
One Democrat after another rose Friday night to blast the plan on the Senate floor, saying it hurt women, children and the poor.
“I want to make it very clear this is not a bipartisan budget,” said Democratic Sen. Sharon Nelson, of Maury Island. “We will need more revenue, for (education) … and please, for the safety net. The poor are hurt in this budget and it’s painful for all of us.”
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Yet with all their distaste for the budget, this is also about strategy. Democrats are working to remain key players, given they are in the minority for the first time in eight years.
So Nelson and six other members of the Democratic caucus sided with the GOP-led majority to pass the spending plan, 30-18.
Republicans needed the help. GOP Sen. Mike Carrell, of Lakewood, was gone due to illness, meaning their caucus was down to 24 votes — one short of a majority. Also, Republican Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, voted no.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee urged Democrats, and Republicans for that matter, not to vote for the budget. “He thinks it’s a bad budget,” said David Postman, an Inslee spokesman, in the wings during the debate. “He’s telling anybody who listens.”
Then why did nearly a third of the Democratic caucus vote yes?
Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, Senate Democratic leader, said the answer lies in the makeup of his caucus.
“We have a caucus with a conservative wing, and trying to keep the caucus together was why we took this approach,” he said. “There’s that inner dynamic that sometimes people outside the caucus don’t seem to understand.”
The reality is, he said, that a couple of conservative Democrats likely would have crossed party lines to help Republicans pass a budget anyway.
The caucus decided to become more involved to get a seat at the bargaining table. Republicans, since they took control, have said they wanted to include Democrats in the budget process.
Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and Nelson worked closely with Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, to negotiate the budget.
From the Democrats’ point of view, they got some wins as a result, including fully funding state-employee contracts, as well as money for Planned Parenthood and programs for immigrants.
Murray said the question became: How many votes did his caucus need to provide to not jeopardize those things?
“As every leader does, you dial the numbers up and you dial the numbers down. I worked to bring our numbers down unless they gave us more revenue,” Murray said. “They wouldn’t give us the revenue, so the numbers were lower. But they weren’t so low that they killed the programs we had in the budget.”
Hargrove and Nelson confirmed that the idea was to keep Senate Democrats as a player in the process.
“The point is we could just let them negotiate with the House (Democrats) but I think we got some value … a Democratic imprint,” Hargrove said.
While Murray and others in his caucus maintained the end result was not a bipartisan budget, Republicans see it differently.
“I think when you have nine Democrats and 21 Republicans, it’s bipartisan,” Hill said.
Senate Republicans added Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, to the Democratic vote count. However, Tom and Sheldon crossed party lines on the first day of the session to give Republicans control of the Senate, and both men caucus with the GOP.
Hill noted the Senate budget closed a large shortfall, met state Supreme Court demands for more education funding, and even added money to certain state services for the vulnerable — all without additional tax revenue.
The fact the budget passed with so many Democratic votes should send a strong message to the House, which is controlled by Democrats, he said.
“Whenever you have a bill come out of the Senate where you have strong support from both parties it makes everybody look at it very carefully,” Hill said.
House Democrats have not had good things to say about the Senate budget.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, and his caucus, have always had a dim view on cuts to social services.
This year members have raised concerns about a Senate proposal to save money by reducing and, in some cases, eliminating cash assistance for elderly and disabled legal immigrants and certain disabled U.S. citizens, among other provisions.
The House is expected to release its own budget soon, one that’s likely to be much closer to Inslee’s than the Senate’s.
Inslee has proposed raising $1.2 billion in additional tax revenue — to meet state Supreme Court demands for K-12 funding — by closing tax breaks and extending existing taxes.
The Senate proposal would spend roughly $33.3 billion over the next two years. That’s $1.1 billion less than a $34.4 billion spending plan released by Inslee, which has few reductions in spending.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org