OLYMPIA — As first years go, this has been a rough one for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.
Democrats lost control of the Senate two days before he assumed office in January. The Legislature took 150 days to pass a budget and flirted with a government shutdown. Many of Inslee’s top priorities, including gun control, abortion, transportation and climate change, have made little, if any, progress.
Labor groups are angry the governor urged Machinists to vote on a contract that would cut benefits in exchange for securing production of the Boeing 777X here. Meanwhile, Boeing is threatening to move production of the aircraft out of state if the union doesn’t agree.
Inslee seems unruffled by it all. He has a big sign in his office that says, “We can do hard things.” The governor argues he just needs more time to do them.
“Good things take time, and big things take time,” Inslee, 62, said during an interview at his office last week. “We intend to do some big things in our state. We’ve just finished the first quarter of a four-quarter game here.”
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, also said it’s too soon to pass judgment, saying “a governor is elected for four years and has four years to get established and pass their agenda.”
The governor’s office points out what it considers successes, which include putting an additional $1 billion into public education last session and kick-starting a multibillion-dollar effort to provide more water for fish and farmers in Eastern Washington — things Republicans claim credit for as well.
Yet it’s hard to see how the governor’s second year in office might play out much differently than his first.
Republicans, with the help of two Democratic senators who crossed party lines, took control of the state Senate on Jan. 14.
Since then, the majority caucus has opposed legislation that Inslee and other Democrats have advocated, including a measure that would have required insurance companies to cover abortions and allowed certain young immigrants who aren’t legal residents to be eligible for college financial aid.
The majority caucus also blocked the state from joining with Oregon to build a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River, in part because of GOP opposition to running light rail on the bridge.
Sen. Don Benton, of Vancouver, the deputy Senate Republican leader, said he expects the majority caucus to remain opposed to proposals like those from the governor.
“I would suggest he throw out his far left partisan goals and start looking for something that would bring people together instead of driving them apart,” Benton said.
Inslee says he has reached out to Senate Republicans and proved he can work with them.
His prime example: ongoing negotiations with House Democrats and the Senate majority on transportation.
The two sides have been stuck for months on issues including stormwater treatment, funding for public transportation and sales taxes collected from transportation projects.
The governor brought lawmakers to his office for 12 rounds of negotiations over the past few weeks, hoping to hold a special session to pass a multibillion-dollar tax package.
Although negotiations are now scheduled to drag into the regular session that starts Jan. 13, Inslee said both sides have moved to the middle.
“They have come a dramatic way in the last five or six months, and it’s because of the governor’s persistence and the governor’s willingness to encourage both sides to yield on things that are ideologically important to them,” Inslee said, referring to himself. “We’re not across the goal line yet but that doesn’t dissuade me from continuing to work.”
Inslee was the starting quarterback at Ingraham High School and is fond of sports metaphors.
The governor’s office also says Inslee is still working with Republicans to find ways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Legislature in 2008 passed a law calling for the state to reduce total greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2035, and to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
The Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup, created by the Legislature at Inslee’s request, has been meeting for months to look at ways to meet the targets.
There have been some clashes between Democrats and Republicans on the panel, especially between Inslee and the GOP members over the governor’s call for a cap on carbon pollution, but panel members are still talking and are expected to continue their work, although it’s not clear for how long.
Inslee said he holds out hope members of the GOP-led caucus will work with Democrats to pass a transportation-tax package and address climate change.
“If we had Republicans who took that position, we could make some beautiful music together,” he said. “We haven’t had them emerge yet.”
Senate Democratic Caucus Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, doesn’t expect them to emerge. “We’re going to continue to have solid differences,” she said, adding that her caucus would need to retake the Senate in 2014 for Inslee to be more successful.
Boeing is an issue that transcends partisan lines and represents a bit of a no-win situation for Inslee.
The governor wants to keep Boeing jobs in the state. But labor, unhappy with Inslee over his call for a Machinists’ contract vote, was an important backer during his 2012 campaign for governor.
He also has close ties to the Machinists. “The Machinists are family to me. My cousins are machinists, my best friend’s dad worked at Boeing, my uncle worked at Boeing. This is a personal thing to me,” Inslee said.
When asked Monday if it was fair for Boeing to demand concessions from the union in exchange for securing the 777X, Inslee walked a fine line saying, “I can fully understand why someone could look at this contract proposal and have a feeling that it’s unfair … but I also fully understand the realities and the real-life circumstance we face — that this is an extremely competitive market and that people’s jobs are at stake.”
Labor leaders skipped a holiday reception at the governor’s mansion to protest his call for a contract vote.
When asked about the dispute, Inslee would only say, “I’m advised there’s going to be a vote; that’s what I’m told.”
The international headquarters of the Machinists union ordered a Jan. 3 vote on Boeing’s revised offer over the objection of local union leaders.
Inslee stressed he’s not suggesting how anyone should vote.
“In my job as Governor I have had to remain focused as a laser beam to set this state up to make it a good place to make airplanes, and that’s what the state has done,” he said, referring to more than $8 billion in aerospace-tax breaks approved by the Legislature in November.
“The Machinists have a destiny for them to decide,” Inslee said. “I’m leaving it in their hands.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @awgarber
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