Sen. Rodney Tom (lower left) listens during a conversation on the Senate floor with Ed Murray. Credit: Tom James/Crosscut
Bipartisanship never stood a chance. Washington's legislators are too tone-deaf to sing "Kumbayah" — as sniping increases across party lines.
Democrats and Republicans are the Delta and Omega fraternities in 1978's Animal House. Question is: Who're the Deltas and who're the Omegas? And which legislator is John Belushi?
In case it's been a while since you saw the American classic, a refresher:
Senate Republicans have been flexing their new-found muscle: With a 23-Republican-two-Democrat alliance led by Sen.Rodney Tom, D-Medina, Republicans control the Senate, meaning the Democrats are in the strange new position of being a largely powerless minority.
Republican bills that died in Senate committees for 10 years will now see the light of day. And Republicans are taking advantage of that. Sen. Janea Holmquist-Newbry, R-Moses Lake and new chairwoman of the Senate's Commerce and Labor Committee, has introduced five complicated workers compensation bills, which organized labor is rising to oppose.
Sen. Don Benton has introduced 30 bills so far — including one that would require parental notification if a girl 18 or younger wants an abortion and one that would require proof of citizenship to get or renew a driver's license.
Meanwhile, newly-elected Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and chairman of the Senate's Trade and Economic Development Committee in his rookie session, has introduced a bill to repeal the 2007 Family Medical Insurance Act. The act is currently slated to provide parents of newborn and newly adopted children with up to five weeks of paid leave starting in 2015. Implementation was delayed because of a lack of money to manage the program — $10 to $12 million in the estimation of the bill's author, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent. Leaves of absence themselves would be funded through a tiny payroll deduction, she said.
"Business and labor have never come together to find a mechanism to pay for it," said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville and Republican caucus leader. Holmquist -Newbry added, "It's an empty promise."
All this has made Keiser as mad as the mother of a high school girl who just realized her daughter snuck out to a Delta toga party.
"It's appalling that Republicans are proposing legislation to actually repeal our state's Family Medical Leave Insurance Act. At a time when middle-class working families are struggling. It makes no sense to cut this benefit," Keiser said.
In fact, Keiser introduced her own bill on the matter Thursday — aimed at expanding the Family Medical Leave Act to provide for up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a newborn or newly-adopted child or a sick family member. It would also provide two-thirds of usual weekly pay up to a maximum of $1,000 a week. The premiums would be shared by employers and employees and would cost, according to her calculations, roughly $1 a week for an employee salaried at $50,000 annually. Workers would become eligible after paying premiums for 680 hours of work.
Braun's bill will face a hearing Monday afternoon before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee — chaired by Holmquist-Newbry, with Braun as vice-chairman.
Maybe some of this deluge of bills will show just how tight the Majority Coalition Caucus really is. The 25 have so far been united on budget matters, universally against new taxes and for cutting state expenses. And so far they have stuck together on procedural matters as well, defeating Democrats' attempts to chip away at their power.
But Tom and a few Republicans have been moderates on social issues. Will the 25 hold together on the socially-conservative bills proposed by far right coalition members?
In past years, Republicans have condemned Democrats for introducing liberal social bills like the marriage equality act, saying these types of bills are distractions from important budget and business issues. This year though, they're singing a different tune. Schoesler said it is the right of all legislators to introduce their own bills, including those that promote conservative social stances.
Speaking of which, Tom hinted Thursday that another college tuition program might be on double secret probation.
The College Bound program promises tuition help and a small book allowance to low-income middle school students who work hard in school, stay put of trouble and succesfuly apply to college. Tom contended this program would ultimately cost the state $1 billion to $2 billion over a multi-year period.
"We can't keep piling up liability on liability on liability for the next generation," Tom said.
Tom has already targeted the Guaranteed Education Tuition program — dubbed "GET" — contending it has put the state $631 million in the hole. GET, which Dems want to keep, allows families to pay for state university tuitions in segments years in advance of a child actually attending college. The program — not the child's parents — compensate for increased tuition.
Earlier this week, Washington State Wire broke the story that the 2013-2015 budget shortfall might be $290 million more than expected.
The cause of the additional shortfall: Late last year the Washington Supreme Court made an extremely complicated and esoteric ruling on estate taxes, which will trim $120 million in 2013-2015 revenue and require $170 million in refunds according to a recent Washington Department of Revenue estimate.
Prior to this Deathmobile crashing the Faber town parade, the best estimates for the state's predicted 2013-2015 budget shortfall were $2.5 billion to $3 billion. That guesstimate includes $900 million to $1.7 billion that the state Supreme Court has ruled is needed to fully fund K-12 education.
Republicans and Inslee say there will be no new taxes to help fix that shortfall, banking on budget cuts and a magically improving economy to deal with the problem. Democrats say new taxes and tax hikes are needed.
So far, no new developments in Olympia's attempts to develop guidelines for legally growing, selling and smoking marijuana without screwing up.
"This is a new idea. It's never been done before," said Gov. Jay inslee.
Inslee and new Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson flew to Washington, D.C. earlier this week to talk pot with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Washington has legalized marijuana, the feds say the stuff is illegal. Where is the common ground?
Evidently, they're not sure yet either. Though the three talked, ultimately nothing was resolved. Holder was inscrutable about where the U.S. Department of Justice stands. Future meetings are expected.
No word on whether Inslee, Ferguson and Holder passed around a joint.
Inslee introduced his first job creation bill Thursday, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger. The bill would spend $23 million of the capital budget on overhauling the reservoirs and rivers of the upper Yakima River Basin. The goal: better collection and storage of melting Cascade Mountain snowpack. This is the first of a series of proposals that Inslee says will improve the state's employment picture.
Republican leaders hemmed and hawed on the bill. The ecological stuff looks OK, they said, but the 316 jobs that Inslee claims will be created are government jobs, not private jobs. That might not be entirely cool with the GOP.
But Inslee got in his cool chops for the week regardless. Asked at a Thursday press conferenc whether he is concerned about North Korea's missile development and potential to strike the West Coast, he said this:
"I'm reminded of the [final attack-on-the-parade] scene, with Kevin Bacon from Animal House saying, 'All is well! All is well!'"