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Sharp elbows, fast moves: Legislature rolls forward

Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry Credit: John Stang

A white-collar roller derby smackdown hit the marbled halls of Olympia this week.

Bruised egos. Parliamentary pummelin'. Crashin' and smashin'. Talkin' smack. Fouls called. Fouls ignored.

No visible tattoos or fishnets. We're guessing adult language behind closed doors.   

Taking advantage of a power jam, the GOP's Pachyderms of Pain put the West Side's Dems of Doom on the defensive in the Senate this week. With Sen. Janéa "Buffy the Democrat Slayer" Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, as lead jammer, Republicans will try to to put some points on the board for the first time today with the passage of five worker compensation bills on the Senate floor.

Senate Republicans have the 25 votes to pass the bills, but could use the political boost if the Democrats led by Sen. Ed "Wonkenstein" Murray, D-Seattle, support them. If the Democrats back the bills, the 23-Republican-two-Democrat majority alliance can say the bills are truly bipartisan. If the Democrats go down swinging today, the majority alliance's bipartisan claims will still ring hollow.

That will signal whether the Republican bills will survive a trip to the House's arena, where Democrats led by House Speaker Frank "Darth Skater" Chopp, D-Seattle, rule big-time.

If House Democrats block the bills, "we're open to compromise," said Republican Senate Caucus Leader Mark "Palouse Mongoose" Schoesler, R-Ritzville. However, he would not provide specifics where compromises could be made.

Holmquist Newbry's bills are complex. The biggest proposed changes include allowing employees to influence what criteria are used to determine the extent of a worker's injury and fitness to return to work; to provide young workers with an option that was first created to enable older workers to retire rather than undergo difficult rehabilitations and retraining; and to override a state court ruling that said the worker's compensation system's chief mission is to protect injured workers. 

Democrats are po'd about how these bills plus a proposed repeal of Family Medical Leave Act  were handled Monday in the Senate's Labor and Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Holmquist Newbry. At the last minute, she  pushed an expected contentious debate on repealing the family leave act from the beginning to the end of the agenda. That move had two effects. It constricted the medical leave repeal hearing into just 25 minutes, leaving people unable to testify. And it prevented the lengthy  family medical leave debate from runing out the clock and delaying her five workers-comp bills from receiving the vote that passed them out of committee for Friday's floor consideration.

Committee member Sen. Karen "Harum Scarum Karen" Keiser, D-Kent, charged that the chairwoman should be called for cutting the track, believing that was a deliberate tactical move by Holmquist Newbry to make things easier for the Republicans' 4-3 majority on the committee.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Steve "Tacoma Terminator" Conway protested Holmquist Newbry's five bills were saying "hasta la vista, baby" to the committee before the members had a chance to study the details sufficiently . 

"The new majority gave five extremely complex bills that make sweeping changes less time than you'd normally give a single bill of comparable complexity," Conway said. "When we requested the opportunity to ask about the likely  impacts of the bills on the state Department  of Labor and Industries, all we got was the bum's rush. … Republicans are telling us: 'We don't  care whose benefits are cut, as long as we cut benefits.'"

That Monday, Holmquist Newbry told Conway said these bills had been around in past legislative sessions, but the then-majority Democrats never gave them hearings. Consequently, she said, legislators should already be familiar with the issues addressed by the bills. The majority alliance's leaders said they delayed a Wednesday full Senate vote on the bills until Friday because the Democrats requested more time to study them.

On Wednesday, leader of the 23-Republican-2-Democrat alliance, Democrat Sen. Rodney "Mad Max of Medina" Tom said: "All our committees are working well together."

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Republicans are hedging their bets on whether one of their best weapons — a law requiring a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and House to increase any taxes —  will stick around. Washington's Supreme Court is expected to rule in the near future on whether that two-thirds requirement is constitutional. 

"We know there's a chance that the court might throw out the two-thirds," said House Minority Leader Richard "Greased Lightning" DeBolt, R-Chehalis. 

Republicans are pushing to have the House and Senate revamp their internal rules to require a two-thirds majority to raise taxes. The Senate version goes to a public hearing next Thursday before the Senate's Government Operations Committee.  The proposal —  likely to pass the Senate —  will then crash into the buzzsaw of Speaker Frank Chopps' House Democrats.

The Choppsters will practice up this morning when the House Republicans burst out on the floor with their own likely doomed two-third's-needed-for-taxes proposal.

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Senate Democrats have hurled forward a couple of higher education tuition bills, for which the majority alliance leaders are not voicing major enthusiasm.

Sen. Jeanne "Susan B. Agony" Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, introduced a bill that would freeze Washington colleges' skyrocketing tuitions for two years, with Senate's majority alliance leaders balking at the $225 million appropriation that would fill the universities' financial gaps created by the proposed tuition freeze. Meanwhile, Sen. David  "Destructo Dude" Frockt, D-Seattle, wants to create a task force to study ways to to keep tuition costs down.

Kohl-Welles' freeze proposal has found bipartisan allies in the House's Higher Education Committee — chairman Rep. Larry "Lethal Larry of the Sea" Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, and ranking Republican Rep. Larry "Lethal Larry of the Desert" Haler, R-Richland. 

The Lethal Larries drew up a play in which the tuition freeze proposal would push aside a Tom proposal to phase out the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, or "GET." The GET program allows families to pay for state university tuitions in segments years in advance of a child actually attending college, with the program — not the child's parents — compensating for increased tuition.

Tom wants to phase out GET because it has $631 million worth of obligations spread across more than a decade. The Larries argued that a phaseout would trigger paying off all that $631 million in the near future. The costs to parents to buy into the GET program rises when tuition increases. Therefore, GET's costs to parents won't increase if tuition doesn't grow, they contended. And they said that the $225 million appropriation is a good economic development investment to boost training for tomorrow's workforce. 

And both said the $225 million calculation needs to be crunched and recrunched to ensure that is the right amount for the smartest college appropriations. 

Haler said: "We're gonna be squeezing that number hard."

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With his tally at 46 bills introduced (and counting), Sen. Don "Quentin Scare-atino" Benton, R-Vancouver, is one busy dude.

A public hearing was held Tuesday on bills by Benton and Sen. Randi "Madame Mayhem" Becker, R-Eatonville, to eliminate certificates of need requirement to build new or expand existing hospitals and health care facilities. Right now, certificates of need are required. The state reviews whether projects are actually needed and won't oversaturate an area.

The philosophical collision: Should the state or free market control the expansion of health care facilities?

One side says: Market research will prevent oversaturation, and competition will keep down patient costs. The other side says: Unchecked growth will overtax regulatory watchdogs with chances dramatically rising of Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

Meanwhile, a hearing is set for next Wednesday on a high-profile Benton bill to require parents to be notified if their daughter, 18 or younger, gets an abortion.

This will be a tricky matter for the Senate's majority allience. The group is really tight on budget stuff. But its solidarity has not been tested on social issues, in which Tom and a few Republicans are moderates instead of hardcore conservatives. 

And a basic rule of parliamentary politics is for the majority not to let a bill reach the floor unless it knows the legislation has enough votes to win. It would take only one vote to swing to defeat any Republican social issues bill. On Wednesday, Tom declined to say how he would vote on Benton's bill.

And if the abortion-notification bill passes the committee stage — which is likely —  "there's no guarantee it'll go to the floor," Schoesler said, declining to elaborate.The alliance controls the Senate Rules Committee, which controls if and when bills go to floor votes.

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Sens. John "Wolfman Smack" Smith, R-Colville and Pam "Peacemaker Pam" Roach, R-Auburn, got hearings this week on their bills to set aside money to compensate ranchers and farmers for wolf-destroyed livestock; allow someone to shoot a wolf that is attacking livestock; and give county governments authority to order a wolf killed under certain circumstances.

In a state survey, 75 percent of Washingtonians support wolves returning to Washington, although that percentage drops significantly in rural areas. However, 66 percent supported farmers' and ranchers' rights to shoot wolves that kill livestock.

"Having this type of predator being reintroduced is devastating  to our ranchers," said Ferry County Commissioner Brad Miller. Tyler Cox, a small rancher from Walla Walla, said, "We don't want to kill wolves. We want to sell calves." 

Roger Chapanis, a Sammamish resident who testified at a hearing on the wolf bills, said: "On the surface, it sounds like good intentions. … At night, I fear it will lead to killing anything that moves."

These bills follow a whip-it move by Rep. Joel "Lord of the Bling" Kretz, R-Wauconda, to transplant wolves from Eastern Washington to the Olympic Peninsula and any Puget Sound island bigger than 50 square miles, so the residents can enjoy the critters' presence.

The bill states that: "The legislature finds that the rich habitat created by the land stewardship of Washington's private landowners has created circumstances that allow the state to enjoy an expanding gray wolf population. Unfortunately, however, this bounty has been geographically limited to areas in eastern Washington and the entire citizenship of the state has not been fully able to enjoy the reestablishment of this majestic species."

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