Inslee needs to sharpen his legislating techniques

It doesn’t matter now if Jay Inslee didn’t mean what he said, or didn’t say what he meant, at that transportation confab he arranged in Arlington last week.

The significance of what happened — and the aftermath in Olympia — is that it reveals how far the governor is from mastering the techniques of legislating. And the longer such skills elude him, the more his ability to be a relevant policy-making force in the second half of his first term becomes an issue.

A quick recap: Inslee traveled to Arlington on Jan. 21 to explain how Washington needs to invest significantly in the transportation system, how he has energized the conversation by proposing a $12 billion package, and how he now hopes state lawmakers will respond by passing a proposal of their own making.

And he urged the invited crowd to help by pressing their state lawmakers to get on board. He said there’s not been much public support voiced by those representing Snohomish County.

“Now let me explain the difficulty we have that local leaders have to be aware of,” he said. “There are 21 legislators from Snohomish County. That is the available pool to advance the interests of Snohomish County. Fully two-thirds of them have not put their shoulder to wheel on this.”

The problem with that remark is that it is based on information from 2013, when the House passed a transportation package and seven members representing the county voted for it. Thirteen members told The Daily Herald last week that they want to act on a transportation proposal this year.

Inslee and his advisers knew the cited number of ambivalent legislators was old. But they won’t say why they chose to use it, thus presenting a misleading picture of the level of support in the delegation.

Instead, the comment created the impression of a nexus between the perceived lack of support from Snohomish County and the slim sum of $82.8 million for county projects in the governor’s 12-year plan. Most of that money is for an off-ramp on Highway 526 and the widening of a road leading to the Port of Everett.

Inslee’s team reacted by denying he said what he said.

“The governor said in Arlington what he has been saying all around the state for two years; lawmakers need to do more to pass a transportation package,” communications director David Postman wrote in an email. “But that has absolutely nothing to do with the list of projects in his package.”

Inslee and his advisers spent last Thursday and Friday scrambling to control the damage by contacting lawmakers and blaming the messenger — The Daily Herald — for printing what the governor said, claiming his comments were mischaracterized.

Inslee is well-schooled in the practice of politics. He knew what he was saying and who would hear it. Perhaps he didn’t anticipate how bad it might sound.

Then it seems someone realized the consequences and the need to control the damage. Passage of a transportation package in the Legislature this year will require votes from many in the Snohomish County delegation. His performance in Arlington riled them, and they told him so.

Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, vented in an email to the governor’s chief of staff.

“The number of lawmakers supporting a package that the governor cites (7) is inaccurate, so it makes him look out of touch with our legislative delegation when he repeats this bad information,” Liias wrote.

And he reminded the chief of staff that he and Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, are actively engaged in negotiations on a transportation package.

“I don’t understand how undercutting your Senate Democratic negotiators back at home helps the governor achieve his goal of passing a bill?” Liias wrote. “I am asking for your help to change the narrative, stop shooting at your allies, and work together to make the comprehensive investments that our state needs.”

This kerfuffle is costing Inslee a bit of credibility, a critical commodity for legislating, and, at the same time, it is giving state lawmakers who represent the county a bit of leverage for the coming session.

They can press Inslee a little harder to support additional county projects in a final transportation package — if there is one. Some members might push to secure his endorsement of provisions in the operating or capital budgets that might not otherwise get his attention.

And there might be a lawmaker or two pushing the governor to publicly support a bill they value, much as he’s asking of them on transportation.

Turnabout is a fair legislating technique the governor may be mastering soon.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623; and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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