OLYMPIA — Senate Democrats are putting their faith in state Sen. Jim Hargrove to help build a bi-partisan coalition to craft the state’s operating budget for the next two years.
On Tuesday, Hargrove was named chairman of the Senate’s powerful, budget-writing Ways & Means Committee by his peers in the Democratic Caucus. Hargrove is known as a conservative Democrat who sometimes sides with Republicans and the move comes at a time when key conservative Democrats are in talks with Republicans to craft a power sharing agreement in the Senate.
The Democrats control the state House, the governor’s mansion and the state Senate, but the margin in the Senate is razor thin. That puts Hargrove smack in the middle of it all to help broker deals and try to keep the conversation civil.
Hargrove, a professional forester who lives just outside the city limits of Hoquiam, says he knows exactly what he’s getting into.
“This is not a role I sought out,” Hargrove said. “I did not campaign for it. I was asked to do it. … I’ve got a record of getting things done, working with Republicans and yet I have credibility with my caucus, too.”
Hargrove said new Senate Majority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, approached him to take over the Ways & Means Committee, a role Murray held until becoming majority leader following the retirement of former Senate majority leader Lisa Brown.
“I believe Senator Hargrove is the right person to lead the committee, based on his years of experience, his expertise, and my belief that we need all points of view represented in our leadership,” Murray said in a press release. “We are attempting to create a leadership team that brings Democrats together — moderate, liberal, urban, suburban and rural.”
Hargrove says he is actually the most senior member of the state Senate. He first took office in the state House in 1985 and then became a state senator in 1993. He’s been chairman or ranking member of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee since 1995, which garnered him bi-partisan acclaim. It’s a position he’ll have to give up to become Ways & Means chair.
“That was the biggest pull on me to not do this,” Hargrove said. “Those are issues that are close to my heart. At least I’ll stay on the committee. … I don’t see this as some kind of plum post. I understand what Senator Murray is trying to do — building a coalition that is willing to work in a bipartisan fashion. I’ve developed that reputation.”
Hargrove says he has a handle for the Corrections and Human Services side of the budget but education spending will be a learning curve and, admittedly, a huge challenge in the wake of the McCleary state Supreme Court ruling requiring more funds be spent on education.
“To me, it’s not just about adding money to education but figuring out what we get for our money,” Hargrove said. “We need to get off the talking points on how much we spend on K-12 and talk more about the accomplishments we want.”
Senate Democrats have proposed creating a new Select Committee on Education Finance & Results, co-chaired by Democrats and Republicans, to help figure out ways to comply with the state Supreme Court’s ruling.
Hargrove said he did have one key message for residents of the 24th Legislative District: “Just because I’m Ways and Means chair doesn’t mean there’s instantly more money for everybody in the district. There’s no money. I can’t print money and we can’t borrow from China.”
The big question is how exactly Hargrove will fit in during the coming weeks as Republicans try to figure out their own reorganization efforts.
“I’m definitely skating on thin ice here,” Hargrove said.
For 2013, the Democrats are expected to have a 26-23 advantage in the state Senate. There’s one race that is still too close to call in the Vancouver area. Republican state Sen. Don Benton is ahead by less than 100 votes, but it’s likely headed for a recount. If he holds on, control in the Senate will hinge on the support of conservative Democrats Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, and Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue.
Sheldon said he thinks there ought to be some co-chairmanship roles between Republicans and Democrats and more bipartisan cooperation.
“We’re waiting for the Republicans to coalesce,” Sheldon said Tuesday. “They’ll have their organizational meeting on Wednesday and then we’ll see what happens from there. A power-sharing agreement is what’s going to get us through this tough time and that’s what I think will happen.”
Murray sent a letter to Republicans last week hoping to “negotiate a clear administrative process going forward.”
“Recent Senate history has shown how a shared responsibility can produce positive results, such as the constitutional rainy day fund, changes to our workers’ compensation system and the additional important reforms adopted just this year,” Murray wrote.
Part of the power-sharing agreement may install Sheldon as president pro-tem of the Senate. On Tuesday, the Democrats supported that move. The Republicans would also need to support Sheldon in that role. The president pro-tem presides over the Senate when the lieutenant governor is unavailable.
Sheldon said he supports Hargrove’s role as budget chairman.
“He approaches everything in a bi-partisan way and is very inclusive and that’s what we need right now,” Sheldon said.
State Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, says Hargrove is an excellent choice for a leadership role in budget talks to demonstrate that the Democratic Caucus is prepared to work with Republicans.
“It sends a pretty strong message that this is not just Democratic business as usual, that the Democrats aren’t just stacking the deck,” said Hatfield, who also sits on the Ways & Means Committee. “This is actually one of the goals I’ve wanted for a long time. And Sen. Hargrove has been very clear he’s not going to just rubber stamp everything. It’s clear that there cannot be legislation or even a budget this session that will get 25 votes only from the Democratic side. We are going to, out of necessity and a desire to get things done, work across the aisle. …
“Already, Sen. Murray has shown tremendous skill in leadership and being open to others’ thoughts and suggestions,” Hatfield added. “We face a narrowly divided Senate chamber and, more than ever, we will need to see bipartisanship and cooperation between Senate Republicans and Democrats, and members from rural, urban and suburban districts.”
On Tuesday, Hatfield was named chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Trade and Economic Development Committee. Asked if he’d be willing to co-chair the committee with a Republican, Hatfield said, “We’ll have to see if the Republicans are interested in those kinds of things. I think that’s going to be a serious and real conversation. For my committee, we already have four Republicans and four Democrats and everything works on a bipartisan basis.”
Hatfield said he’s eager to work on more economic development issues on his committee – an area that was divided last year into two separate committees. One issue he wants to focus a bit more on is boosting tourism. The state devoted no funds to tourism this past year.
“We don’t need to do as much advertising as Nebraska, because people are already coming here, but we need to do some kind of promotion and maybe that means partnering with private industry,” Hatfield said.