$40 million school-related loss: Just the cost of playing political games in Olympia?

Franklin High School Credit: justinbaeder/Flickr

Washington Senate and House floor votes are choreographed affairs with the outcomes known in advance.

In private, the majority party counts heads and makes sure that the only bills to get floor votes are guaranteed to pass. Also in private, the minority party maps out its speeches and gestures of frustration in order to say why the sure-to-pass bills stink. The floor debates and votes are mostly ritual with almost no suspense.

But a floor vote went off script last Tuesday on a Senate Majority Coalition Caucus bill to require schools to conduct teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores. The schools already have that option but mandatory use of test scores is needed to keep a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind regulations.

Losing that waiver would mean Washington will lose $40 million in federal aid. But the bill by Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, lost 19-28. Seven hardcore conservatives from the 24-Republican-two-Democrat majority coalition crossed the aisle to join 21 minority Democrats to kill the bill — an almost unheard-of political hook-up in Olympia. One minority Democrat voted with the remaining coalition members.

The strangest feature of this unexpected defeat is that Litzow's final bill was a clone on a Democrat-supported bill by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, which did not make it beyond the Senate Education Committee.

All this occurred just before the 5.p.m. deadline last Tuesday for all policy bills to leave their chamber of origin. So this measure is theoretically dead for this year, although parliamentary tricks are available to revive it.

But the bill's failure added to Gov. Jay Inslee's to-do list when he visited Washington, D.C. last weekend to meet with other governors, President Barack Obama and some cabinet members, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Inslee tried to convince Duncan to send the $40 million in federal education aid anyway. Duncan apparently gave Inslee a noncommittal answer.

All this maneuvering may have cost the state $40 million in education revenue. And legislators' versions of what happened are very oblique.

So we're swiping a technique occasionally used by Tacoma News Tribune political columnist Peter Callaghan to present you with a list of questions with no answers. We've tried to read between the lines of what happened. Now, it's your turn to come up with your own interpretations, which will be as good as ours.

  • How irritated were 14 of the most conservative majority coalition members when the other 12 members unexpectedly split from the super-tight caucus a couple weeks ago to zip a revived DREAM Act — allowing college financial aid for Washington high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants — through the Senate in less than 24 hours? Remember, this is a caucus that has had ironclad loyalty among its members for one-and-a-half sessions. And the majority coalition would not allow a Senate floor vote on the DREAM Act throughout that time.
  • Right after the DREAM Act play, a coalition conservative wing leader, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, told The Seattle Times that Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, is "the worst majority leader in 20 years.” and “extremely manipulative.” Is this a routine family squabble or the beginning of a legitimate rift in the coalition? And for Tom, isn't being insulted by Benton actually a good thing politically?
  • Why would seven coalition conservatives be against a bill to require tying teacher evaluations to student test scores? This bill didn't raise taxes, nor did it hurt any conservative constituency. Frankly, teachers and the conservative Republicans fight each other on almost everything.
  • Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, was very confident shortly before the Tuesday deadline that his bill to regulate oil trains — less strictly than a House Democrat bill — would make it to a floor vote and sure passage that same afternoon. But Ericksen was also a no vote on Litzow's bill. And his bill never came to a vote. Why didn't the majority coalition leaders give his oil train bill a floor vote Tuesday?
  • Why would Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake and one of the Senate's most conservative members, uncharacteristically split with her closest allies in the caucus to vote yes on Litzow's bill? She had led the conservative protest against the coalition's moderate leaders on the quick passage of the DREAM Act. Does her recent announcement of her candidacy for Congress factor into this?
  • Why would the majority coalition violate a cardinal Olympia rule of never allowing a floor vote unless you already have enough guaranteed votes to pass a bill? The coalition's leaders said they knew about the seven Republican no votes in advance. Why did the coalition leaders believe a half-dozen Democrats would provide the winning votes? Why would a half-dozen Democrats give that impression to the majority coalition?
  • Why would McAuliffe, who introduced a bill this session that Litzow's final version copied, oppose Litzow's bill. McAuliffe and the Washington Education Association are staunch allies. The WEA opposes evaluations being tied to student test scores. Was that a factor?
  • Why would the minority Democrats turn down $40 million in federal education after constantly crying that more money is needed to improve the state's schools?
  • How much of last Tuesday's vote was policy-driven, and how much was actually internal Senate politics on both sides of the aisle?
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