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Capitol Outlook: Last call at the Olympia policy bar

Legislators face the first big deadline this week for their favorite bills.
Lawmakers continue to huddle behind closed doors at the capitol.

Lawmakers continue to huddle behind closed doors at the capitol. MathTeacherGuy/Flickr

What do you call the start of the last part of the first third of something? You could call it the coming week in the state Legislature.

Monday starts the countdown to the first real deadline of the session — the policy bill cutoff. That cutoff is Friday, the last day to move policy bills out of committee.

For the uninitiated, policy bills are proposals for changing the state policy — also known as the law. If they happen to be a Democrat or a particularly masochistic Republican, legislators come up with ideas for everything from gun control to, in the case of conservative Republican Don Benton, declaring that no state agency shall communicate with any party named in Agenda 21. Which is, of course, a U.N. resolution supposedly designed to create a new world order or at least sustainability in everyone's backyard.

As the bills are being introduced, the ideas pass through the shaky fingers of wet-behind-the-ears interns, the money-stained-palms of lobbyists, and under the coolly analytical noses of legislative staff. 

After introduction, the bills are then sent to subject-specific committees and, in many cases, given hearings where they can be testified about, amended, and ultimately voted on. An approving vote sends a bill to be voted on by the whole House or Senate, while a rejection by committee gives a bill the axe.

The chair of each committee sets the agenda for the group. One arrow in his or her quiver, if she doesn't want to see a particular bill move forward, is to simply not schedule the bill. By not scheduling it, or more often by bumping it to the back of the line over and over, a chair can keep a bill from ever getting its required two hearings. 

Friday the looming spectre of a third option — inaction — will become very concrete.

Friday is the last day for policy bills to be voted on in committee. Any bills that don't make the cut will have to wait until next year's legislative session.

For example, the House Judiciary Committee last week gave hearings to a tenant privacy bill sponsored by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, and a gun-purchase background check bill from the committee chairman, Seattle Democratic Rep. Jamie Pedersen. Moscoso bill would make non-conviction court records private from landlords and employers, but he isn't optimistic it will move forward. Pedersen's gun background check received a hearing last week; with Pedersen as chair, it almost certainly receive the needed vote to move it forward. 

Of course, there's always an out. This is only the end of the first third, not the whole session. And this is politics, after all. The "out" is that policy bills are only one type of bill. The other type is budget bills. 

Budget bills are bills that primarily change the budget of the state, not its law. And there's an extra week to get them out of committee. The possibility for playing politics comes from the gray area between the two. What kind of teeth will a highway hedge-trimming mandate have, after all, if there's no funding for shears? By the same token, who's to say that the underdog bill making contraception more available couldn't be reborn as, perhaps, a special package of funding earmarked for family planning clinics?

But most bills have to make it through committee this week or they will be hopelessly stuck in the mud. On Monday the gates open and sponsors will try to speed their political mounts to the finish line,  even as the mud thickens and their chances become longer. Expect lots of losers by Friday — and considerable complaining.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

Tom James has helped cover the 2013 state legislative session for Crosscut through the University of Washington journalism program. He also writes for Crosscut on other subjects. Born in Seattle and raised in Kitsap, Tom worked for the Kitsap Navy News and Central Kitsap Reporter before heading to the UW for a double-major in journalism and economics, which he hopes to finish in 2014.


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