Despite some outbreaks of truthiness, the state GOP won the messaging war in Olympia this year.

Share story

More than one lie was told in Olympia during this year’s historically bloated legislative session. Give politicians an extra three months of special session after special session to spin, and there’s no accounting for the truthiness.

The biggest truth-shading was tucked into each party’s biggest messages to voters. The Democrats in the state House and governor’s mansion said we needed $1.5 billion more in taxes, most of it from new taxes on capital gains and carbon emissions.

The rebounding state economy, and remarkably disciplined Senate GOP opposition, put a lie to that one. Education, early learning, colleges and mental health all got enormous bumps, and state workers and teachers got raises — without the new tax sources.

The Republicans also committed a misdemeanor with its big message: We will do all that, plus cut — cut!— college tuition without raising taxes. Wrong. The budget includes $480 million in new revenue over four years, and ended a tax break for Microsoft.

The GOP’s populist, but inaccurate, message on taxes was repeated from two years ago as well. The truth is: doing more costs more.

The messaging war for voters’ hearts, however, was easily won by the Senate Republican caucus.

Their audacious work to cut tuition by 25 percent — and to cap future increases — will be more popular than puppies. The GOP is flush with power since retaking control of the Senate in 2013, and knows that the tuition cut warms the hearts of middle-class suburbanites who are key to them staying in power.

The shrinking Democratic majority in the state House, and Gov. Jay Inslee, also may try to claim credit. That would be a major shading of the truth. It wasn’t until a June 19 news conference — six months into what was supposed to be a 105-day session — that Inslee publicly acknowledged the tuition cut should be part of the final budget deal. Democratic budget-writers resisted it throughout.

At that same conference, Inslee showed solid fact-based leadership. He helped break the dam that delayed a budget deal for months, conceding that his capital-gains tax plan was dead. Rising revenue forecasts, and some federal largesse, gave the state at least $700 million more than was expected back at the start of the session.

But overall, Inslee had a miserable year in Olympia. He needed to polish his record for the 2016 re-election campaign, and got little aside from a transportation infrastructure package that Republicans endorsed as well.

His biggest losses came on his biggest priority: addressing climate change. Three years into his run as the “nation’s greenest governor,” he couldn’t even get a carbon-taxing plan through the Democratic-controlled House (it was dead in the Senate). And strong-armed negotiating by the GOP forced Inslee to give up his own executive power to impose a rule requiring more biofuel in gasoline, which Oregon and California have.

Inslee swung for the fences, and barely hit the outfield.

Democrats will grumble about entrenched Republican opposition devoted to scuttling any of Inslee’s priorities. But to accept that in a blue state is to grade Inslee on a curve. For example, he could have used his executive power to impose the fuel standard at any time. He chose not to, making a political gamble that he lost.

He has disappointed and frustrated Democrats for grand speechmaking while losing the inside political game needed to win progressive policies.

But in scoring points off Inslee, the GOP also kicks a couple of cans down the road: addressing climate change with a carbon tax and the state’s regressive tax code with a capital-gains tax.

Polls show Washington voters are open to both. Olympia’s failure to enact them have renewed discussion of putting them directly to voters in an initiative. Those measures should be put to voters, and I think they’ll pass.

That may mean that the 2016 ballot will put Inslee’s re-election on the same ballot as measures guaranteed to energize the state’s growing chorus of young liberal voters. That strategy worked for Inslee in 2012, when gay marriage and marijuana legalization fired up the Democratic base.

The Republicans won the political messaging battle in 2015, even while telling a few little white lies. But it might cost them next year.

Information in this column, originally published July 9, 2015, was corrected July 10, 2015. A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the state House passed Gov. Jay Inslee’s carbon-taxing plan.