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Olympia’s Boeing unity is shattering

Jay Inslee Credit: John Stang

On Tuesday, everyone involved with Gov. Jay Inslee's push to get a Boeing tax-incentive bill and an accompanying transportation package passed in a few days physically stood by the governor in a giant kumbaya moment.

The obvious message: Everyone on board. Let's git 'er done.

By Friday, all the parties  showed why there is a need for an R-rated version — the G-rated term would be  "cluster foul-up"  — for what the military calls a "Charlie Foxtrot."

Questions can be raised about what was really on everyone's mind on Tuesday when Inslee, Democratic leaders, Republican-allied Senate majority coalition leader Rodney Tom, Boeing's CEO and the leader of Boeing's biggest union gathered to support the governor's special legislative session to nail down the tax-incentives and transportation packages. Boeing wants both passed quickly; plus it wants its Machinists' union to ratify a contract next week

If all those are approved, Boeing says it will guarantee that all of the upcoming 777X airliner project will be kept in Washington. That translates to tens of thousands of Washington jobs in return for $8.7 billion worth of tax breaks to Boeing from 2024 to 2040. Boeing wants current tax breaks extended beyond their 2024 expiration date.

Since Tuesday, obtuseness has run amok. Roadblocks have popped up everywhere. Questions are answered with vague generalities. Requests for specifics frequently get dodged. On Tuesday, everyone appeared to agree on the Washington Legislature's end game. Today, that end game appears to be in a shambles.

There are a number of factors.

Inslee took his own Democrats by surprise with Tuesday's announcement. One key Democratic transportation leader, Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, has been out of the state this week on a previous commitment. Republicans have cited her absence as a reason this week's transportation action has stalled. But leaders on both sides also kept saying this week that progress is being made in behind-the-scenes talks. No one will elaborate on what that progress is.

Meanwhile, even Democratic legislators have grumbled about having to pass complicated legislation with only one or two days to obtain and digest the details.

The Senate majority coalition appears hostile to any transportation package passing in the foreseeable future. Democrats and the Senate's 23-Republican-two-Democrat majority coalition have been negotiating a transportation package for at least six months without any visible agreements.

Democrats want a gas tax hike to pay for roughly $10 billion worth of transportation projects during the next 10 years. Republicans like transportation construction and maintenance, but many hate the idea of a gas tax increase. Republicans have not been able to say how they would pay for billions of dollars worth of work without a gas tax hike. The state's business community, labor interests and local governments have almost universally supported passing a transportation package with a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase as soon as possible. They want the jobs, the economic boosts and the fix-it work that a package would produce.

Through all this, the Republican mantra has been "reform before revenue." The GOP wants administrative reforms enacted to improve the Washington Department of Transportation's troubled handling of big projects. In recent months, Clibborn and the Senate Democrats' transportation leader Sen. Tracey Eide of Federal Way said they are OK with the majority of the GOP's reform proposals. That raises the question on why reform matters might still be considered a stumbling block.

A possible deadlocked item could be that Republicans have wanted to change the prevailing wage law on state transportation projects, guaranteeing an employee of a contractor working on a state project will get the same wages as an employee of a contractor working on a private project in the same county. 

Another difficulty is that Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom changes his tune a lot. On Tuesday, Tom, D-Medina, stood literally next to Inslee as the governor called for passing the Boeing tax bill and transportation package in a few days. Tom voiced no opposition to the entire "quick-get-it-done plan" when Inslee discussed it. When the press asked Tom about the gas tax hike, he said Democrats and majority coalition were working on that matter.

But on Thursday's first day of the special session, Tom unequivocally told Washington State Wire that the majority coalition would end the special session Saturday as soon as the tax incentive bill is passed, and not keep the Senate around to tackle any potential transportation package. When quizzed about this on Friday, Tom said it is up in the air whether the Senate will stay open after Saturday to discuss a transportation package.

Could Boeing's machinists union scuttle the Legislature's efforts? On Tuesday, Tom Wroblewski, president of the roughly 30,000 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local No.751, stood a few feet from Inslee when the governor said Boeing told him that the machinists needed to approve a contract next week to get Boeing's guarantee that the 777X work will stay in Washington.

Wroblewski stood there silently. He did not utter a peep of unhappiness about the proposed union contract needed to consummate the overall deal. Then on Thursday, Wroblewski tore up the contract proposal before hundreds of machinists in Everett and called it a "piece of crap," the Seattle Times reported. "The machinists' families will make the decision that is good for their circumstances," Inslee said Friday.

Consequently, this question ran through the Capitol campus in Olympia on Friday: Why should the Legislature ram through a $8.7 billion tax-break bill in three or four days prior to a union vote that might kill the entire 777X deal? Inslee dodged giving a specific answer to that question Friday at a press conference.

Legislators avoided any public discussion about that scenario, even dodging chances to question the union about the potential rejection of the contract. On Friday afternoon, the union's lobbyist Larry Brown briefly testified twice before the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways & Means Committee. Each time, he gave a brief recommendation for the Legislature pass the Boeing tax-incentive bill. When the legislators' turn came to question Brown, not a single member of the Senate Ways & Means Committee asked anything of Brown on any topic. At the House Appropriations Committee hearing, Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, asked Brown a single technical question on a companion bill on training sought by Boeing. 

Another complicating factor: Boeing's management likes being mysterious on general principle. Boeing Commercial Airlines CEO Ray Conner also stood by Inslee at Tuesday kumbaya call for a quick resolution to the tax-incentive bill, the transportation package and union contract ratification. He did not speak, and refused to answer press questions.

Boeing has not testified at any of the three public hearings Thursday and Friday on the tax-incentive bill — meaning no legislator has had a public chance to ask Boeing any questions. Inslee and Boeing have not explained why the corporation needs a bill in the next few days when the 777X project is further in the future and the tax breaks extensions won't be needed for 11 years.

Meanwhile, Inslee has said Boeing wants a transportation package passed as part of the 777X deal. But what specifically does Boeing want in the transportation package? No one knows. Inslee talks in generalities. Legislative leaders hem and haw. If a transportation package does not pass in the next few days, will that kill the 777X arrangement? Again, nobody in Olympia appears to know. And Boeing ain't talking.

So what is likely to happen?

The Machinists union vote is an unknown. So is the transportation package's immediate fate.

But the tax-incentive bill appears on track to pass no later than early next week. Some Republicans and Democrats grumble about ramming a complicated $8.7 billion tax-incentive bill through in less than a week just to please Boeing. "It bothers me that Boeing can snap a finger and get a concession," said Rep. Cary Condotta, R-Wenatchee. Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Olympia added: "They're leveraging our votes with pressure."

However, legislators have overwhelmingly indicated that keeping jobs in Washington trumps the bad tastes in their mouths.

But that doesn't mean Inslee and the Legislature totally trust Boeing. In fact, because of a bitter memory of granting a huge tax break to Boeing in 2003 for the 787 project only to see the company build a second 787 plant in South Carolina, the new bill says that if Boeing moves any 777X work to another state, the biggest tax break would disappear. Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and chairman of the House Finance Committee, called that "authentic accountability." While some critics question the adequacy of the provision, maybe lawmakers and Inslee will stick together on that issue.

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