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Lawmakers debate 30-plus budget amendments

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” vote 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 billion 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 a.m. Friday. They’ll be back to work on the main budget bill at 1 p.m. Monday.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

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Legislature looks at changing ethics investigations

By John Stang

Sen. Pam Roach feels Lt. Gov. Brad Owen’s pain. So does Sen. Don Benton.

Owen’s pain is a $15,000 fine that the Washington Executive Ethics Board levied against him last September for running his nonprofit anti-drug program out of his public office. The fine has $5,000 suspended with the assumption of no future ethics infractions, with the remaining $10,000 to be paid in monthly installments over two years. The board’s investigation lasted from 2012 to 2014.

That fine prompted two state senators to introduce bipartisan bills on the subject this session.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, wants to expand the definition of a state official’s duties to include those that are “intended to protect, promote, educate, and serve the citizens of the state of Washington.” The practical result would be that Owen’s work with children could be considered as part of his duties as lieutenant governor.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, introduced a bill that would forbid an ethics board from using the state attorney general’s office in its investigations. The bill spells out that the attorney general’s office would represent an accused elected official in any legal actions resulting from such an investigation. Liias described the current relationship between the executive and legislative ethics boards and the attorney general’s office as equivalent to having a judge oversee a prosecutor.

Neither bill helps Owen in his $15,000 fine because that matter is now closed, he told the Senate Government Operations Committee on Monday. However, the bills were “solely generated by the frustration and unbelievable experience I have had,” Owen said. He contended he did not have a chance to testify before the executive ethics board prior to receiving his fine.

Roach, R-Auburn and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, and committee member Benton, R-Vancouver, sympathized with Owen, saying that the procedures of ethics probes have been too slanted against the accused. Roach has been on the receiving end of such probes. The Republican-controlled Majority Coalition Caucus investigated Benton regarding a nasty feud in 2013. Meanwhile, Roach and Benton have filed their own unsuccessful ethics complaints against others last year.

“I was put through hell in my campaign,” Roach said. Last year, she and fellow conservative Republican Rep. Cathy Dahlquist of Enumclaw clashed in a very bitter Senate race that Roach won. Conservative Democrat Rep. Chris Hurst, D- Enumclaw, helped Dahlquist.

During the campaign, Hurst and Dahlquist filed three ethics complaints against Roach, all pertaining to a 2013 trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan while the 2013 legislative session was underway. The Washington Legislative Ethics Board cleared her of all three charges. At the same time, Roach filed four ethics complaints against Dahlquist and Hurst pertaining to the timing of a fundraising event; remarks that Dahlquist and Hurst made about her trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan; and Hurst’s conversations with an attorney who was planning to run for a judicial position. The legislative ethics board also dismissed those four complaints.

Roach quizzed David Horn, a chief deputy at the attorney general office, on why Owen did not get a chance to testify before the executive ethics board. Horn replied that Owen settled his case before the actual hearing could take place.

Roach interrupted Horn and told him that Owen and other elected officials don’t have the thousands of dollars needed to get legal representation before the executive and legislative ethics boards. Owen “didn’t have access because he didn’t have the extra money. … I know the person on the hot seat doesn’t get fairness,” Roach told Horn.

Benton agreed with Roach and Owen, saying that he had bad experiences being investigated by the Senate Facilities & Operations Committee — a normally obscure housekeeping and personnel matters panel. “I was shocked on how you could be treated. … I found the ways that I and others were treated by the F&O board appalling,” Benton said at Monday’s hearing.

Benton was chairman of the Facilities & Operations Committee in 2013 and 2014.

In 2013 as chairman of the Facilities & Operations Committee, Benton presided over the dismissal of two investigations involving Roach — her alleged verbal abuse of a Republican staffer and a question about who leaked a report related to this matter to the Associated Press.

In another matter, Benton was involved in a public feud with Rivers in 2013 that Majority Coalition Caucus leaders investigated and eventually resolved internally. During that fracas, Benton wrote a letter accusing majority coalition leaders of being “retaliatory” against him as well as “cowardly” and “amoral” — eventually getting an investigation into Rivers’ conduct, which quickly and quietly died out.

Last year, Benton filed a complaint with the executive ethics board against Gov. Jay Inslee alleging that Inslee unlawfully involved himself in a labor dispute by removing Washington State Patrol officers as escorts for state grain inspectors at Port of Vancouver’s United Grain Corp.’s export facility in early July. The board dismissed the complaint.

On Monday, Kate Reynolds, executive director of the executive ethics board, attended the hearing, but did not testify and declined to comment afterward.

Despite settling his case, Owen, who has traveled for the state on repeated trade missions, remains disturbed by the findings that his work with children wasn’t considered a proper function. “I am baffled that my international travel can be official,” he said, “but my work with kids is not.”

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.