State House Leaders Seek Middle Ground

State House Leaders Seek Middle Ground
Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp being sworn in January 9, 2017. Photo:

Governor Jay Inslee wasn’t the only one sounding off on the state of the state last week. The first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43) and House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen (R-39) offered their own visions for Washington, at the start of a crucial biennial budget session of the legislature.

In an address to a joint session of the House and Senate following his swearing-in, Chopp emphasized equitable economic growth across the state, plus fully funding basic education, and preserving public health services. Kristiansen focused almost exclusively on the need for lawmakers to look beyond local interests in crafting political solutions.

“The luxury of tunnel vision on our own issues has got to be set aside if we’re going to get this job done and do it right,” Kristiansen said in remarks from the House floor. “If despite our differences we can work together, we can be a strong, united front.”

Chopp: Fix McCleary This Year

There appeared to be common ground. Like Inslee and Kristiansen, Chopp also called for bipartisan collaboration. He said that “as we work on these goals, let us treat each other with respect, keep an open mind, and most importantly, hold the public interest as our prime directive.”

Chopp stressed action on K-12, saying “this year, we must get the job done. Providing full funding of basic education is imperative. It’s important to our students and our families, but also to our businesses and our workforce, to create a better economy for all of us.”

Addressing Regional Economic Inequities

The Speaker also accented creating job opportunities in Washington counties suffering from high unemployment and poverty. That’s in some part because his caucus, traditionally most focused on issues key to booming Seattle and Central Puget Sound, got a loud wake-up call in November.

Democrats had been expecting to grow their thin House majority of 50-48 by several seats, but the count stayed unchanged in part due to the election to the state legislature of only the second Republican in 70 years from the 19th District, Jim Walsh.

The 19th is comprised of Pacific and Wahkiakum counties and parts of Grays Harbor, Lewis, and Cowlitz counties. That southwest corner of the state has been hard hit economically.

According to the latest state monthly employment report, for November 2016, Ferry and Grays Harbor counties had unemployment rates of 10.3 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively. In contrast, more affluent counties such as King and Snohomish had jobless rates of 3.9 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively.

The legislature needs to “work for the success of one Washington, based on the shared values of our people,” said Chopp. “We reject the notion that there are conflicting regions or cultures in our state,” he added.

Accomplishing The Improbable

Kristiansen also struck a diplomatic tone in his January 9 speech. Recalling previous sessions, he said that “when things seemed impossible or improbable, they were able to set their personal stuff aside, they were able to look each other in the eye, and focus in on what the challenges were.”

“The citizens sent us down here collectively to govern this state,” he added. “Not for any special interest group, but for the citizens of Washington.”

In his State of the State speech, Inslee called for collaboration on developing a basic education funding solution, to meet a 2018 deadline mandated by the State Supreme Court. Although he opened the door to different budget plans that will be coming from the House and Senate, he tried to foreclose consideration of taking money from other state agencies to help boost the state’s K-12 funding role.

“There are better ways to finance our schools,” he said.

Finding A Path To The Same Goal

Although House Republicans had few kind words for Inslee’s State of the State speech, some offered praise for Chopp’s remarks.

House Republican Floor Leader State Rep. J.T. Wilcox (R-2) criticized Inslee’s speech for overlooking the state’s challenging jobs climate. In contrast, Wilcox said, “Speaker Chopp actually did a good job…talking about one Washington,” and the economy.

Kristiansen also praised Chopp’s framing of the challenges ahead. “Often times, our goals are very, very similar, if not the same,” he said. “Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward.”

“There’s a time to campaign,” Kristiansen said. “But now’s the time to govern.”


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