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IN THE NEWS: Pioneering lawmakers are making history

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Late in November 2012, I traveled to our state Capitol for the biennial re-organization of my Senate Republican Caucus.

Held in even years shortly after each general election, “re-org” is our equivalent of a board meeting: Caucus members vote on leadership positions and set the agenda for the upcoming session.

During my time in Olympia, I’ve seen majorities change. I’ve also seen gaps between the minority caucus and majority caucus narrow and widen.

In 2007, the number of Republican senators dropped to 17. By 2012, our numbers had grown to 23. There was talk of our reaching 25 seats and taking the majority in the 49-member Senate at the next election.

Then, in a historic turn of events, my colleagues and I claimed the majority in the Senate by ditching the traditional partisan approach and forming the Majority Coalition Caucus. We were a rabble of 23 Republicans and two Democrats who decided to govern differently and more effectively by following a set of shared principles — so much so that we broke the mold and forged our own future.

Being a member of the majority caucus in the Senate – and in the House of Representatives for that matter – comes with a mix of responsibility and influence.

Typically, the majority presides over every committee and decides which bills move forward. In true Majority Coalition Caucus fashion, we offered a handful of committee-leadership positions to Democrats comprising what was now the new minority caucus. Most were feeling jilted and rejected the offer, but a couple – either intrigued by the possibilities or motivated by a desire to stay at the table – accepted.

I’ll admit there were a few stumbles at first, but we collectively held our breath. Now, at more than halfway through our fourth legislative session, we’ve swapped a few members but we’re still the majority and we’re hitting our stride.

Over the past three sessions, we’ve upended priorities from past regimes; education has moved squarely to the top of the list. In the 30 years prior to the the Majority Coalition Caucus, the slice of the state budget dedicated to education had been shrinking. Under our watch, K-12 funding has jumped to 47 percent of the state’s budget – without raising general taxes or cutting services.

We put the brakes on runaway college costs in 2013 by freezing tuition at our state schools. That action provided the momentum for 2015 when the caucus cut tuition at all of Washington’s state-run colleges and universities, including our community colleges. A simple, yet revolutionary idea, so much so that no other state had ever done it.

The results have been immediate. This past fall, nearby Central Washington University saw first-year enrollment increase 21 percent over the previous year.

The current legislative session a “short” 60-day session, is scheduled to end March 10. Would there be reason for the majority to step out boldly again?

On Feb. 5, the majority caucus-led Senate rejected the confirmation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s candidate to head up the state Department of Transportation. One of the Senate’s unique duties is to confirm or reject gubernatorial appointments.

While I grudgingly admit our action wasn’t completely historic (we last exercised this option in 1998), judging from the angry cries of the governor and Seattle-based press, it might as well have been. According to the governor, our job is to rubber-stamp his appointments regardless of their lack of experience, mismanagement or project failures.

Our job, as we in the majority caucus see it, is to act in the best interest of the people who have elected us. Judging from the response I’ve gotten from drivers all over Washington, the folks who are paying for roads, bridges, buses and “mega” projects appreciate our oversight.

What do we have up our sleeve for the 2017 legislative session? There are three weeks left in the current legislative session and many more problem agencies.

We may still have more history to write in 2016.

The original article, published February 19, 2016, can be viewed here.