State voters will face stark contrasts in November

Successful campaigns appeal to our aspirations, promising better times ahead. From Bill Clinton’s “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” to Barack Obama’s “audacity of hope,” would-be change agents look forward. Successful office-holders also highlight the next day’s opportunities, as Ronald Reagan did with “morning in America” in his bid for re-election in 1984.

But despite the rally music and filtered sunrises, each election amounts to a referendum on the present, on the policies and programs of the incumbent majority.

In their rematch, Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi face challenges quite different from those posed in their 2004 contest. Gregoire will run on her gubernatorial accomplishments. Rossi must simultaneously challenge that record and sell us on his alternative future.

Across the state, campaigning legislators will either tout or trash the legislative legacy to win support. Democrats will pledge to fulfill their commitments. Republicans will promise necessary midcourse corrections.

Gregoire completed her bill-signing last week, concluding the work of the most, well, ambitious Legislature in memory. According to, lawmakers introduced 4,355 bills, 3,495 amendments, and passed 852 laws since the Legislature was seated in 2007. Statistics, however, fail to convey the scope of legislative ambition.

This Legislature has done more to expand state government than any since 1993, when lawmakers adopted a state-run health-care plan (never fully implemented and largely repealed) and substantial new taxes. Although the 1993 session lingers in insider memory as the highwater mark for liberal legislation here, today’s lawmakers arguably have surpassed their record.

Consider just three policy areas: health care, climate change and paid family leave. In each, Democrats demonstrated their distrust of private markets by expanding regulation and government programs.

Two years of health-care debate failed to produce a comprehensive bill. But much of the wrangling involved just what form a state-run plan should take. Differences were resolved by creating a “citizens’ work group” on health care to tour the state in 2009 soliciting support for legislative action. The “citizens” will look at alternatives that include a Canadian-style single-payer plan, a state-run insurance exchange like one piloted in Massachusetts, and a possible comprehensive benefit package for all residents. It’s heavy on top-down stuff. Meanwhile, lawmakers enhanced the regulatory clout of the insurance commissioner and expanded a government-run insurance program for small businesses.

Efforts to combat climate change — possibly the only change people don’t want to see this year — continued in 2008. Last year, the governor issued an executive order establishing goals for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Legislators took those goals and made law around them. By 2020, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to 1990 levels, with additional reductions mandated into the future. Legislation also took it on itself to limit car and truck use by setting goals for reductions in “vehicle miles traveled.”

Compared with universal health care and saving the planet, requiring employers to provide some paid time off for parents to spend time with newborn or newly-adopted children sounds downright pedestrian. Even so, the Legislature still doesn’t know how to pay for it. Once launched, the leave program will doubtless expand. Such is the legislative compulsion to advance social policy by dictating workplace conditions.

And then there’s the unprecedented spending growth, fueled by a strong but now cooling economy. Already, nonpartisan fiscal staff members predict a $2.4 billion shortfall in the next budget cycle. The deficit was foreseeable and foreseen, but lawmakers, flush with cash and enthusiasm, plunged ahead.

Senate Republicans promote what they call the “punt list” of items Democrats kicked into 2009. The budget tops the list, which also includes family leave funding, property tax relief and health-care reform.

True, the majority left a lot undone, but they placed significant markers on the road to a greatly enlarged role for state government. Rather than kicking the ball away, the majority lit long fuses, strategically staggering the policy rollout — nothing too shocking at one time. But there’s no mistaking the agenda or their commitment to see it completed.

In November, Washington voters will again face the classic choice: “change versus more of the same.” Rarely have the contrasts been so sharply defined or the consequences so great.

Richard S. Davis, vice president-communications of the Association of Washington Business, writes every other Wednesday. His columns do not necessarily reflect the views of AWB. His e-mail address is

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