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What’s alive, what’s dead: Road Kill edition

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Feb. 8, 2012 at 10:00 am |
February 8, 2012 3:12 pm

Yes, it’s a grisly title, but legislative watchers know I’m referring to the Road Kill Caucus. It’s the small group of centrist Democrats (pro-business fiscal hawks with varied but mostly liberal views on social issues) who have wielded outsized power over the past year because their party desperately needs their votes to accomplish anything in the divided Senate.

Tuesday’s cutoff — the midnight deadline for bills to pass out of budget committees — left the Road Kill faction sitting pretty.

In the Senate, the group and its Republican allies had a list of priorities they were trying to move along, and mostly succeeded.

The Ways and Means Committee revived Road Kill Sen. Rodney Tom‘s teacher-evaluation proposal, which has support from Microsoft, Boeing and other business interests who say it will make sure struggling teachers will be helped to improve or removed from the classroom. It had been blocked in the Education Committee as part of a dispute over whether Washington should have charter schools, and “died” at the previous cutoff.

Along with another teacher-eval proposal by Gov. Chris Gregoire with union backing, Ways and Means grafted the plan onto a “title-only” bill — left all but blank for just such an occasion — and moved it forward.

Supporters want evaluations to be factors in teacher assignments. Pro-labor Tacoma Sen. Steve Conway objected, saying similar Tacoma School District policies sparked last year’s teacher strike. He wondered if lawmakers would be “actually creating more instability in our school districts, and actually making it into a political fight where it should be the children, should be our primary focus.”

But Senate Democratic leadership made the call to allow the bills to move along to “indicate our willingness to have a robust debate,” Majority Leader Lisa Brown said after the evening vote. She said she expects Gregoire to bring everyone together to hammer out a deal.

Charters didn’t get the same resuscitation as teacher evaluations, but are waiting in the wings. Brown said the issue is too divisive, but Road Killers won’t let that issue drop, Puyallup Sen. Jim Kastama said.

Meanwhile, a trio pair of measures supported by Road Killers and intended to shore up the state’s long-term budget outlook all advanced out of Ways and Means:

  • An amendment to the state constitution sponsored by Kastama that would require budgets to be balanced over a six-year period.
  • A commission with special authority to make proposals for restructuring state government, another Kastama proposal.

Kastama said the day’s actions show the Senate won’t allow some kind of short-term fix to the immediate $1.5 billion budget problem that doesn’t include reforms to make the budget sustainable.

Road Killers and Republicans share other goals, such as consolidating K-12 employee health-care benefits and easing permitting requirements for businesses, and those bills are considered still eligible for action because they pertain to the budget.

“I think the kind of centrist, moderate agenda is moving forward,” Kastama said.

UPDATE: Though it passed on a voice vote, Sen. Zarelli says his bill did not get enough signatures because of a miscommunication. Here’s what I wrote earlier:

  • A permanent repeal of some voter-imposed education spending. Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli’s measure would abolish cost-of-living raises for teachers and other school-district employees — something voters demanded but that the Legislature has suspended most years for budget reasons. Both the GOP and Road Kill have been calling for eliminating it rather than carrying it forward on the state’s books.
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