OLYMPIA — Come Monday, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire will begin to write the final chapter of her biography as the state’s chief executive.
Lawmakers will start a 60-day session that will be the last opportunity for Gregoire to leave her political fingerprints on how the state serves its residents and spends their money.
She rolled out several policy initiatives in recent weeks but said the go-home list is short: Balance the budget, raise revenue and incite job creation. She wants to improve the quality of instruction in classrooms and make the dream of marriage for same-sex couples a reality.
“If I would get a budget with my No. 1 priority, that half penny (sales tax increase) so that I can keep from cutting more from education, get my school reforms and get equality, I’ll leave office very proud,” she said.
It’s not the closing act Gregoire envisioned when she arrived in 2005 but it’s based on the script she’s been given entering her eighth and final year in office.
Her tenure began amid an economic boom which fueled unparalleled investments in public schools, colleges and health care and human services for the poor.
Then a recession that is the worst since the Great Depression sapped the state’s tax collections, forcing her to reverse course and halt, curtail or outright abandon many of those initiatives.
And the undoing is not done. More spending must be cut in this session to fill a $1.5 billion hole in the budget.
“It’s not the legacy that I set out to achieve, let me be clear,” she said. “I set out to do a lot of things but those things required us to have some sort of revenue and I don’t. The legacy I’m looking for now is to see us through this recession so that hopefully I can pass the baton to my successor who will be a heck of a lot better off than I’ve been over the last three, four years.”
Gregoire told members of the House Republican Caucus leadership team the same thing in a December meeting. Now, they are watching to see if her actions match her words in the next two months.
“My hope would be she stands behind what she told us and she really works toward turning things around,” said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Monroe, the caucus chairman.
He wondered whether her change of heart on gay marriage signals she’ll be altering her stance on other prominent issues.
“Is that a trend of things to come? We’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “Let’s truly hope she will be setting the politics aside and work on policies that will benefit the state of Washington not certain groups of people in Washington.
The 2012 session kicks off at noon and will be a sprint for the state’s 98 representatives and 49 senators.
Awaiting them is a significant budget challenge and a divisive debate on gay marriage. Factor in the shortness of time, 60 days and a looming re-election campaign for most and the elements are in place for a potentially historic — and explosive — session.
Gregoire said there is a limit to what lawmakers can accomplish and she’s trying to keep the spotlight on major items starting with the budget.
In November, at the outset of a special legislative session, she delivered a proposal to erase what was then a $2 billion shortfall in the state’s spending plan. Lawmakers wound up plugging a quarter of the gap before going home for the holidays.
Now, they must make the toughest decisions.
She’s bracing for bipartisan opposition for her call to end the Basic Health Plan and slash levy support payments to school districts. She knows Democrats will rebuff her on axing the Disability Lifeline program for adults and will push back on her recommendation for trimming subsidized child care.
Those are only a few of the flashpoints. Gregoire’s money-saving suggestions of shortening the school year and releasing some inmates early from prison aren’t going over so well with lawmakers, either.
But Gregoire is convinced they won’t be able to rebalance the budget without incorporating some of her ideas. That’s why she proposed asking voters to increase the sales tax by a half-cent for three years. It would bring in roughly $480 million a year with the bulk of it flowing to schools, community colleges and four-year universities.
“They’re going to find the cuts they’re going to have to make repulsive,” she said. “They’re going to say, Republican and Democrat alike, that’s not my Washington. We have to do something. That something I think they will get to is a sales tax, a half-penny.”
Though the idea never got a hearing in the special session, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said it will be discussed in the next two months. So, too, will other means of generating new dollars.
“I expect that in the end we’ll also be asking the public to look at a revenue package because I expect that the budget we put out there will not be acceptable to the people of Washington state,” Brown said.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, cautioned against the strategy of boxing up cuts to popular programs and telling voters these won’t happen if they raise the sales tax.
“We have to be very careful about what’s inside that box,” said Hewitt, who isn’t supporting a higher sales tax. “If we put higher education or something of that nature in there and it fails in the polls, we’re going to be left with a dilemma we cannot live with.”
As the budget and tax battle is waged, Gregoire will look to spur job growth with proposals to be outlined later this week.
She said she’s interested in the efforts of Democrat and Republican lawmakers in both chambers to create up to 30,000 construction jobs.
State Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said lawmakers are talking about raising between $1 billion and $2 billion through the sale of bonds and using the money to fund specific projects around the state. If it came together in January, money could be flowing this year, he said.
Gregoire’s push for school reform centers on deploying a tougher means of evaluating teachers and principals.
“I need to find a way to turn around failing schools,” she said. “I’m not on a train to say teachers are bad. By far and away most teachers are doing good work. But there are some not well suited for the job. We need to be realistic with them, they need to be realistic with themselves and their colleagues know it.”
Conservative Democrats, Republicans and business leaders are on board with the idea.
The Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union, wants to work on the details while ensuring the governor and lawmakers keep their focus on finding more money for education.
“The biggest problem facing our public schools isn’t bad teachers,” WEA president Mary Lindquist said in December when Gregoire announced her plan. “The biggest threat facing our students and public schools is bad corporate tax loopholes that let our most profitable businesses and wealthiest individuals avoid paying their fair share. We need corporate tax reform more than we need even more education reform and dictates from the Legislature.”
Legalizing marriage for same-sex couples may prove to be one of Gregoire’s lasting legacies — if it happens. Accomplishing it will command much of her attention and all of her negotiating talents as most Republicans are digging in for a fight they say should not be undertaken this session.
“We have 60 days to complete a very, very challenging agenda. The last thing we need to do is be down here in turmoil over social issues,” Hewitt said.
Gregoire isn’t buying the argument.
“We’re big boys and girls here. We can accept the responsibility to do what is right,” she said. “It may be a difficult issue but it can be discussed thoughtfully and deliberatively. It can be discussed respectfully.”
And the pivotal votes on this issue, and the rest of those on her agenda, may be secured in the course of a meeting in her office.
“I do things differently than I did that first session,” Gregoire said. “I hadn’t been a legislator. That first session I used to sit on the sidelines and talk to people. Now I bring them in here. We have hard, tough conversations in this room. Very direct, very tough and we get it done.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com