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Lawmakers debate 30-plus budget amendments

The Legislative Building of the Washington State Capitol, Olympia.

April 3, 2015 - 1:26 pm

By John Stang

The Washington Senate Democrats charged their Republican colleagues purposely stacked the deck in passing the GOP’s 2015-2017 operating budget proposal. Why? To protect Sen. Andy Hill, R- Redmond, from having to cast embarrassing votes.

While he has not publicly talked of running, Hill’s name has been circulated in political circles as a possible GOP candidate to face Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in 2016.

Hill’s potential career plans influenced over Thursday’s proceedings, a bitter and esoteric parliamentary battle between the 26 members of the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus and the 23 Democratic senators.

Prior to debates on the amendments, the Majority Coalition’s 25 Republicans, with their one Democratic ally, installed a new rule, over the protests of Senate Democrats. That new rule, actually a revival of one killed in 2011, requires any amendment to the state’s operating, transportation and capital budgets to pass by a 60 percent vote rather than a simple majority. That means the senate needs 30 votes instead of 25 to make any change in its budget proposal.

The rule was approved along a strict, 26-23, caucus-line vote, with Hill joining the majority.

Meanwhile, the minority Democrats tried to add 51 amendments to the GOP-oriented budget proposal. (They withdrew several additional amendments prior to floor votes.) Only two of the 51 Democratic amendments broke the 30-vote mark. As a group, the Democrats had the parliamentary clout to force a roll call vote on each amendment – and they did on most.

Fifty-one is an excessively high number of amendments. It is possible that some of them were designed to paint Andy Hill into a few no-win corners.  

 Thirteen of the failed amendments were supported by simple majorities of the Senate, but fell short of the 30-vote threshold. That means some Republicans voted for them, and the amendments would have passed without the rule change.

Hill voted for four of the 13 failed amendments. One  “yes” votes was for a measure that would have required state contractors to pay men and women equally for the same job. Another amendment would have funded research into how race and ethnicity affects criminal, social services and education caseloads. The final two would have allocated $1 million for the University of Washington to conduct climate impact studies and set up statewide anti-bullying programs.

 Five other Republicans voted at least five times for amendments that received more than 25 “yes” votes, but fewer than the 30 required for passage: Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, voted for 10 amendments; Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, for 7; Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Conner, 6; Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, 6; and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, 5.

Hill, Fain and Litzow are considered moderates in the Majority Coalition. Rivers, Roach and Benton are viewed as staunch conservatives. Roach and Benton have a complicated relationship with their caucuses, and sometimes break away. Also, Roach is considered pro-labor.

 Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, called the breakaway Republicans evidence of the independence and diversity of the Majority Coalition. “I have a big tent,” he said, “and not everyone has the same heartburn.”

 Hill, the chief budget writer for the Senate Republicans, declined to comment Thursday, saying, “I’m too busy trying to get the budget off the floor to talk.”

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, charged the GOP caucus with installing the 60-percent-to-pass-an-amendment rule as a way to protect Hill and other GOP moderates, who could safely vote for some Democratic amendments without fear that those amendments would actually pass. That lets Hill and company cast themselves as moderate in any future elections without hurting the Majority Coalition’s overall agenda.

Nelson alleged that, behind the scenes, GOP caucus leaders offered withdraw that 60-percent rule prior to the floor vote if Democrats would back off their threat to force roll call votes on gender equality and climate study amendment bills.

Veteran House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has been known to employ a similar strategy, to great effect, in the House. If, for example, Chopp has more than 50 votes (a majority) lined up for a particular bill, he has been known to let Democrats from swing districts vote against the bill so they can look good for their constituents.

Senate Majority Leader Schoesler scoffed at Nelson’s read of the GOP’s 60-percent-to-pass gambit. “That’s tin-foil-hat and black-helicopter thinking,” he said. But a remark overheard in the Senate chamber by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and others seems to support Nelson’s view.

Several hours into the debates, Conway says he overheard Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane and one of the GOP’s staunchest conservatives, say loudly, “We’re doing this because you guys don’t want to do a tough vote.” Conway couldn’t say whom Baumgartner was talking to, but the Spokane senator was surrounded by Republicans at the time. “About two dozen of us heard it,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.

When asked about the alleged remark, Baumgartner was dismissive. “Conway’s pretty old,” he said. “He doesn’t hear very well.”

Thursday’s debates over the amendments dragged on for nine-and-a-half tense hours with both sides unleashing arsenals of parliamentary maneuvers that angered their opponents and maybe even their colleagues. The debates finally ended at 2:15 a.m. on Friday.

The parliamentary brinksmanship elicited complaints from the minority caucus, marking the third time in 2015 that a minority caucus has charged the majority with stepping far over the line with procedural power moves.

The first instance occurred back on Jan. 12, the first day of the 2015 legislative session. In a 26-23 partisan tally, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus passed a new rule that required a two-thirds vote to pass any new taxes. That rule would have effectively scuttled a capital gains tax that the House budget writers have proposed. Lt. Gov. Bruce Owen, who presides over the Senate, declared the rule unconstitutional and void on March 1. On Thursday, Owen declared the 60-percent-amendment rule valid.

The roles were reversed on March 2 in the Democrat-controlled House. Democrats had the votes to pass a bill that would have raised Washington’s minimum wage (over four years to $12 an hour by 2019). Minority House Republicans proposed 12 amendments to that bill. Normally, House Speaker Chopp does not preside over the House’s floor action. But on that day, he did.

The House Democrats deliberately called their bill “Increasing The Minimum Hourly Wage To Twelve Dollars Over Four Years.” The narrow, carefully-worded title allowed Chopp to quickly rule nine Republican amendments invalid because they did not conform to the bill’s title, killing the amendments before any debate could begin. The DOA amendments included so-called “teen” wages, which would let businesses pay teenage workers less than the required minimum wage. House Democrats easily defeated the other Republican amendments after floor debates.

In other news from Thursday, the House passed its $38.8 billon operating budget proposal in a 51-47 party-line vote. The proposal features $1.5 billion in new taxes and some tax break closures. Following the drawn-out amendments debates, the Senate argued angrily for 45 more minutes about whether to debate and act on its own $38 billion budget bill with $40 million in tax breaks closures.

After work on a few related budget bills, senators knocked off at 4:10 .am. Friday. They’ll be back to work on the main budget bill at 1p.m. Monday.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

 

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