Unpacking Government: How Do Legislative Deals Come Together?

Apr 17, 2017

Washington is one of the few states in the country where legislative power is split between two political parties.

That means getting things done comes down to the art of the deal.

Right now, Republicans and Democrats in Olympia are locked in negotiations over one of the most consequential issues facing the state: How to fund education

Whatever deal they come up with could affect Washington for generations. But the deal-making process unfolds largely in private meetings, outside of public view. 

For the latest installment of Unpacking Government, KNKX reporter Will James spoke with two former state legislators about how these deals come together behind closed doors.

Ross Hunter was the chief Democratic budget writer in the House, before leaving the Legislature in 2015 to run the state's Department of Early Learning.

Bill Finkbeiner, a Republican, served as Senate majority leader until 2006.

“It’s like going into a video rental store with like 80 of your friends and saying, ‘What movie do you want to watch?’" Finkbeiner said of negotiations in Olympia. 

He and Hunter describe the mechanics of state budget negotiations, why hardball tactics often prove short-sighted, and how day-to-day chats about lawmakers' children or grandchildren form the bedrock of legislative compromise. 

Finkbeiner and Hunter both hail from the Eastside area of King County, a region that has produced a string of moderate lawmakers with reputations for bipartisanship. They say that's largely because it's one of the few corners of the state not dominated by a single political party. 

Later, Will James spoke with another Eastsider, former Senate majority leader Rodney Tom, who served as both a Republican and a Democrat before leaving the Legislature in 2014.

Tom spoke about the the decline of bipartisan relations in Olympia, what it was like to negotiate with Democrats after he left their caucus to lead a Republican majority, and why House Speaker Frank Chopp is the "Michael Jordan of politics."

This story is part of our series, Unpacking Government. Have questions of your own? Send them to unpackinggovernment@knkx.org.