Why are the Dems losing in the budget and transportation negotiations in Olympia?

Sunday I attended a meeting of the Legislative Action Committee of the King County Democrats.  Representative Tana Senn of the 41st LD spoke, followed by Senator Cyrus Habib of the 48th LD.

During discussion of the budget it became clear that there is unlikely to be a capital gains tax. Nor will Governor Inslee get the carbon pricing plan that is central to his advocacy for clean energy.

Tann Sennhabib

Furthermore, the transportation plan agreed to in the senate contains an obnoxious “poison pill” according to which funding for public transit and bike lanes would be cut if carbon pricing is later instituted.

Negotiations on the budget seem to be favoring the Republicans.

Yesterday I got email from Jaxon Ravens, the state Dem chair:

If Senator Andy Hill and the State Senate GOP don’t come to the table and work with Democrats to strike a deal on our budget, then 25,000 workers — about half of the state’s workers — will be sent pink slips. Important services like state parks and supervision of former inmates will be shuttered.

Democrats are doing their part to reach a deal. Governor Inslee and House Democrats have dropped key parts of their initial proposal, like a capital gains tax. Their compromise goes 77 percent of the way toward filling the gap between the initial budget proposals.

State Senate Republicans? They’ve budged only 2 percent.

Basically, the message I hear from the legislators and from Ravens is that the Republicans out-maneuvered the Democrats.  By various budgetary gimmicks, unreasonable projections, and postponements, and thanks to an increase in revenue due to economic growth, the Republicans get to maintain their “no new taxes” pledge. The Democrats fail to raise revenue, fix our regressive tax system, or make clear progress on clean energy and transportation.

On the topic of transportation, Habib said that the senators chosen to negotiate with the Republicans were Senator Steve Hobbs and Senator Marko Liias.   Habib said the pair agreed to the Republicans’ transportation plan and left the other Democrats on the committee in a quandary.   The infamous “poison pill” in the plan  was anathema to many Democrats. But it was hard to reject the recommendation of the “bipartisan” leaders.

And the Republicans were able to split Democratic constituencies: the Senate transportation plan has decent support for public transportation but is bad on carbon and climate change.  Public transportation advocates and many mayors and cities councils are thus happy with the plan, while environmentalists are mostly opposed.

The Republicans even get to trumpet their plan to lower college tuition by 25%, though Tana Senn pointed out the reductions exclude community colleges and are paid for by eliminating scholarships and by lowering pay for faculty. (See GOP proposal to slash college tuition puts House, Senate at odds.)

So it seems the Republicans are winning.

Negotiations aren’t finished, and maybe the Republicans will be forced to agree to eliminate some tax exemptions (e.g., for oil).  Habib said Republicans already have been forced to agree to cost of living adjustments for teachers and other pay raises for state workers.  But the Republicans seem willing, perhaps eager, to shut down state government to get their way. Is the reason they keep winning just that they’re unscrupulous?

Habib said the Dems didn’t sell their tax increases well to the public. He gave the analogy of shopping for clothes. If you walk into a store the salesman doesn’t start off asking you to give him $100 up front. Instead, he shows you a nice shirt, tempts you, and says, “Isn’t it nice?”     The Dems should have held a carrot in front of the public and said, for example, “If you want decreased class sizes, as the voters approved in the ballot initiative I-1135, then we can fund it by raising taxes on the rich.”

Republicans raise taxes on the poor and the middle class

In fact, the Republican talking point that there are “no new taxes” is mostly empty rhetoric, because the Republicans have agreed to raise taxes — on the middle class and the poor. The Senate transportation plan raises the regressive gas tax.  But even Habib at one point in the meeting repeated the Republican talking point that they passed a budget that didn’t raise taxes. I repeatedly said to Habib and Senn that the Dems need to emphasize the fact the Republicans do want to raise taxes.  Habib said that it’s not smart for Dems to oppose tax increases, even if the taxes are regressive, because the state needs revenue.

Habib pointed out that businesses were in favor of the increase in the gas tax, because without good transportation infrastructure their businesses will suffer, but they don’t want to pay for it.

So, the Dems were out-maneuvered and allowed the Republicans to control the messaging. Republicans are also spending money on media ads touting their budget. Understandably, Dems didn’t want to spend money on counter-ads, because they can’t afford it.    The GOP has deep-pocketed benefactors.

But I suspect there’s another reason the Dems keep losing:  the system is rigged. One of the two Democratic senators chosen to negotiate with the Republicans on the transportation package is a centrist/corporate Dem, Steve Hobbs.  Hobbs  is a long time Road Kill caucus member.  The other Democratic negotiator, Marko Liias, used to be quite progressive (see Who’s progressive in the Washington State House?) but in recent years has moved to the right. (“Liias voted against the budget because it did not include the continuation of tax incentives that benefits technology companies. ” source; and Liias was a sponsor of the Money Tree bill that would have aided the loan shark industry source).

And the person chosen to lead the budget negotiations in the House is Ross Hunter, who is also a centrist Democrat and who has been a leader in promoting tax breaks for his former employer, Microsoft.

Governor Inslee, on the other hand, took the lead in pushing for the $8.7 billion in tax breaks for Boeing.

Corporate Dems dominate the Democratic Party nationally; hence the many sellouts of the Obama presidency, including the selection of Senator Max Baucus as the lead Senate negotiator for the Affordable Care Act and the apparent success of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Were the Dems just out-maneuvered by the clever and ruthless Republicans?   Or is the deck stacked in Olympia against progressive policies, the way it’s stacked in D.C.?

Let’s hope the Republicans are forced to eliminate some major tax breaks. But don’t hold your breath.

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