Now It's State-Level GOP Contracts

Republicans in state of Washington take aim at crime, taxes, welfare - even health care

SCORES of motorcycles roared up to the steps of Washington State's domed capitol building one day last week. The bikers, many wearing long beards and black leather chaps, were seeking relief from the state's helmet law, which they say should be a matter of individual choice.

These visitors turned heads here for a day, but some other rebels with a cause have moved in for a longer stay.

Republicans, touting a state-level version of the GOP ``Contract With America,'' now control the State's House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.

It was one of the biggest legislative turnovers in last November's elections, taking the House from two-thirds Democrats to almost two-thirds GOP. Democrats still hold the Senate, 25 to 24.

As a sign of the pervasiveness of the Republican ``revolution,'' other state-level versions of the national GOP Contract are being advanced - including one in North Carolina.

The new political landscape here is causing a frenzy of bill-writing, posturing, and back-room maneuvering for the high ground. But since this is Washington State, where civility is the tradition, the wrangling is more subtle.

A Northwest Newt? Not in Olympia, where new House Speaker Clyde Ballard is known as congenial and gracious, unlike his counterpart Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia in the nation's capital.

Some analysts say the more temperate climate under the dome here bodes well for actually reaching bipartisan consensus on some major issues, such as tax cuts and regulatory reform.

``Legislation that dies is not in the best interest of the state,'' says House majority leader Dale Foreman, who like Mr. Ballard comes from the heart of Washington's apple-growing region.

To become law in the state, bills must be mainstream enough to avoid veto by Gov. Mike Lowry (D), Mr. Foreman says.

But David Olson, a University of Washington political scientist, says he believes less than half the Republican ``Contract With Washington State'' will become law.

Republican ascendancy already has Democrats here fighting back with complaints that ``extreme'' legislation is being rushed through committees. The state GOP contract, on which the party rode into power on election day, closely follows the national model (though with seven points, not 10).

The agenda includes legislation on:

Crime. A bill would increase sentences for gun crimes, including a possible death penalty for drive-by shootings and gang-initiation murders.

Business taxes. Investment in equipment would become exempt from sales taxes. Another bill would roll back half of a 1993 tax hike on businesses.

Property taxes. Homeowners would see a 5-percent cut, and a tax-relief program for senior citizens would be expanded.

Education. Money would be redirected from state and local administration to classrooms.

Health care. Bills would remove mandates on employers and increase individual choice in the state's Health Care Services Act.

Welfare reform. Recipients would be limited to two years of aid, but could earn and save money without losing benefits.

In the first two weeks of the 105-day legislative session, several of these bills have been moved out of committees and are ready for floor debate.

Democrats say this pace is too fast. At a recent press conference, House Democratic leader Brian Ebersole of Tacoma complained that ``the Republican `fast track' has become a freight train.''

He says some of the bills may cause unintended problems. For example, some experts say requiring government to compensate property owners for regulatory impact would hinder routine zoning decisions.

Fellow Democratic Rep. Greg Fisher added that the bills moved have been ``far right of the mainstream strike zone.'' The Seattle-area lawmaker says the voters want ``the left and right to come together'' to create a smaller, simpler government.

This week, as the first House bill came to a floor vote, there were signs of such a compromise.

Republicans allowed four Democratic amendments to a bill reducing regulation of 16- and 17-year-olds in the workplace. The bill then passed with 11 Democrats - one-third of their members - supporting it. GOP leader Foreman says he hopes this experience has helped prove Democratic criticism to be premature. He adds that Democrats proposed no amendments to the teen-labor bill while it was in committee.

The effort at consensus may score points on another front. With bipartisan House support, bills will be harder for the Senate or governor to ignore.

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