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Olympia’s tempestuous week: Passive-aggressive politics in play

Gov. Jay Inslee Credit: Crosscut

Passive aggression. Deliberately missed signals. Pots calling kettles black. Semantic dodges. Convoluted arguments. He-said-she-said. Stiletto-like psychological games.

Scenes from a rough patch in marriage? A marriage completely on the rocks?

Or the past week in the Washington Legislature? A week in which Republican and Democrat legislators have been getting under each others' skins.

We'll start with the big one.

For years, Democrats and Republicans have needled each other over tax hikes. Democrats want to be able to create new taxes or close loopholes with a simple majority. Republicans always said higher taxes would screw the economy, are a budgetary cop-out, and are just plain bad. With anti-tax initiative mastermind Tim Eyman in their corner, the outnumbered Republicans have had an ace in the  hole — an off-and-on law that a two-thirds majority is needed to raise taxes or close loopholes.

Democrats always griped about a minority blocking their plans. Republican legislators always complained about having to hang on against tax-and-spend Dems. The point-counterpoint arguments have been practically ritualized, like the bickering of an old couple. In 2011, Democrats put into action an intricate plan to deliberately have an attempt to close a tax loophole fail in the House, setting into motion a winding court journey to force the Washington Supreme Court to rule on whether the supermajority rule is constitutional.

And on Thursday, the Democrats won. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the supermajority requirement is unconstitutional. Democrats were cautious in their celebration, saying they are not the tax mongers that they are painted out to be, and that they will play nice with the GOP legislators to hammer out a 2013-2015 budget that might include new taxes.

Eyman sulked. And Republican senators struck back two ways — a frontal blitz that will probably fail and a passive-aggressive measure that could work.

The GOP blitz is a putting a bill on the fast track for a full Senate vote to let Washingtonians vote in November on whether to insert the supermajority-needed-for-taxes requirement into the state constitution. "The answer is to change the constitution," said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

Since sending a constitutional amendment to the voters requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, this bill is doomed. It won't even pass the Senate with 24 Democrats opposing it. But Republicans have all but said those upcoming no votes would make good albatrosses to inflict on those same Dems in future election campaigns.

The passive-aggressive approach could be more effective for the 23-Republican-two-Democrat coalition controlling in the Senate. That majority means that alliance is in charge of the Senate Rules Committee, which decides whether a bill goes to a full Senate vote. And the alliance controls the Senate Ways and Means Committee through which all tax bills must go.

Bottom line: The alliance can make sure no tax increase or closing-of-a-tax-loophole bill ever makes it to a full Senate vote — even measures that previously passed the House. Majority coalition leader, Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said the coalition would allow through only tax bills that a preliminary count of votes would show two-thirds of the Senate already supporting them.

Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, president of the Senate and in charge of interpreting its internal rules, is in uncharted parliamentary territory. He will have the constitutionality of Tom's plan legally researched if Democrats challenge it on the full Senate floor.

*****

House Democrats are pushing a $10 billion transportation package. The key piece is a 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike, something that Gov. Jay Inslee said he would consider.

But on Wednesday, House and Senate Republican leaders claimed the Washington Department of Transportation has made so many mistakes that it is not worthy of  receiving any new tax revenue.

There is a litany of self-created WSDOT troubles. Higher-than-normal ferry construction costs. New ferries that lean to the side when empty. Sloppy design work resulting in $100 million worth of useless State Route 520 bridge pontoons, which ticked off the normally affable Inslee. To Republican leaders, these are exhibits that the transportation department is a money pit.

"Before we add any more taxes, we need to see them fix their problems," said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama and one of the House Republican budget leaders — who are pretty powerless in the Democrat-dominated House.

*****

Inter-party sniping took place a week ago when the Feb. 22 deadline loomed for committees to move policy bills or let them die. That deadline resulted in a traffic jam of bills being voted on in committee, plus piles of discarded legislation. Here are two skirmishes.

Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, had a bill calling for state studies of diabetes. It had bipartisan cosponsors, including Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, who is chairwoman of the Senate Health Care Committee. But Becker unexpectedly removed Schlicher's bill from the committee's agenda just before its Feb. 21 meeting, killing the bill.

Schlicher said he did not know why his bill was removed at the last minute, and declined to speculate on Becker's reasons. Becker said the agenda was crowded and some bill had to be removed — declining to elaborate on why a non-controversial bill would take up more than a few minutes. Fellow Health Care Committee member Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said there was no valid reason to remove Schlicher's bill, contending the motive was political and not policy-related. She declined to elaborate on the political reasons.

Schlicher — who was appointed to his seat–  faces his first election in November against Rep Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard. The rookie Schlicher has a sparse record of passed bills compared to the veteran Angel. Becker denied that  the bill was killed for reasons related to the upcoming Schlicher-Angel race.

Meanwhile, Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Seattle, had a bill awaiting a vote to leave the Senate Energy and Environment Committee to ban the flame retardant TRIS from children's products and furniture. Committee member Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, called for a vote on that bill. Committee chairman Sen. Doug Erickson, R-Ferndale, seconded the motion, and then realized he backed a bill that he opposed. Another committee member, Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch and a Republican ally, quickly called for a motion to adjourn, which Erickson supported. The Republican  majority voted to adjourn. Ranker contended his motion was already on the table.

Erickson gaveled the meeting to a close, ending discussion of the flame retardant bill. Ranker protested that Senate rules were violated — to no avail.

According to Ranker, Erickson told him that the shutdown was in retaliation for a lack of Democratic support for a move to water down Washington's legal targets to expand alternative energy sources. Erickson said he does not discuss private conversations with the press.

Ranker knew the bill did not have the votes to get out of the committee, but believed it deserved public discussion. He and Erickson later made up. Ranker said: "We don't have the ability to hold grudges around here."

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

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