Inslee shifts strategy to push his big policy ideas

Gov. Jay Inslee says he is approaching the upcoming session of the Legislature “very differently” than he did in his first two years as the state’s chief executive.

In 2014, he talked about the need to hold steady and allow the recession to recede enough for residents and businesses to begin righting themselves. He offered an array of policy ideas and nudged lawmakers to pass them. When they didn’t act on a transportation package, he sounded politely frustrated. And when they left Olympia on time, he couldn’t contain his pleasure.

Inslee stopped holding steady in mid-December when he put forth arguably the largest — friends say boldest — tax-and-spend proposal of any governor in state history.

His desire to inject billions of additional dollars into public schools and the transportation system and pay for it with proceeds of new taxes on carbon emissions and capital gains is the kind of stuff Inslee’s stoutest allies have been waiting to see from him since he took office.

Inslee’s natural political tendency is to launch big ideas to try to enlarge and extend the ideological playing field for social liberals and environmentalists. And he had done so with his vision for the state.

“We have a new suite of challenges,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “We have a plan to move the state forward and not fall behind.”

Inslee is smart enough to know it won’t be easy to get his ambitious agenda through a Republican-controlled Senate in its entirety, let alone with any of its signature pieces intact.

He says his ideas are intended to start a conversation with lawmakers so now he will be watched closely to see how he carries on the conversation. Inslee’s been criticized for not engaging deeply enough in the rigors of negotiating agreements and, when he does submerge himself, it’s not as an arbiter or mediator, but as a partisan participant.

With two years under his belt, he’s expecting a different tack this session.

“I know legislators better,” he said. “Having longer relationships help.”

In the meantime, what transpires in this session will be part of the foundation on which the 2016 gubernatorial election will be conducted.

That adds an intriguing and different element to the session as well.

Inslee – and any Republican state lawmaker contemplating a challenge to the Democratic governor – will want to be viewed by the public as a uniting, not polarizing figure. Yet, at the same time, they can’t be tabbed as sell-outs by the grassroots of their own parties.

There are those eyeing Inslee through the prism of politics and think he has the most to lose by what occurs this session. Some might even think it will make or break his chances at re-election.

“The people who have the most to lose here are our grandchildren. They are in great jeopardy,” Inslee said, his voice braced with passion as he slipped easily into a rhetorical rhythm about his agenda.

Doing nothing this session puts 4- and 5-year-olds in Washington in jeopardy of not getting access to early childhood education, growing up in a cleaner environment and being able to get to work later in life, he said.

“They are the people at risk here, not me,” he said.

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

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