One thing that doesn’t come across on TVW or much of the news coverage out of Olympia is how choreographed and scripted most (but not all) of the House and Senate floor debate is. Daily, tourists and visitors sit in the galleries, presumably expecting some Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moments, a chance to see lawmakers’ passionate debate changing their colleagues’ minds as they weigh public policy for the state.
Although there is plenty of passion during debate, most of the debate — how many speakers, how many amendments, how long to talk — is predetermined through agreements between Democratic leaders and the Republican minority. And many of the speeches borrow heavily from talking points prepared by staffers or lobbyists.
So it was a rare moment recently when Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, stood up and argued against a seemingly uncontroversial bill, HB 1994. Requested by local courts, the bill says that courts can keep overpayments of court fees, so long as that overpayment is less than $10.
Marr didn’t like that idea of government keeping the change. As a former auto dealer in Spokane, he said, there would occasionally be cases in which a buyer overpaid the state licensing fee by a few dollars. When the dealership sent them a note and a little refund check, he said, the goodwill earned was well worth a little administrative overhead.
If government’s going to keep an overpayment, Marr said, it should be no more than what you’d put in a tip jar.
“Nobody looks at $10 and says `Hey, keep it,’” he said.
But when he mentioned this on the Senate floor, the shoo-in, minor bill, which had passed the House nearly unanimously, failed. Twenty six lawmakers voted no, 20 voted yes. Lawmakers and staffers were startled. (Marr says he’d unwittingly violated protocol: If you’re going to speak against a bill, give a heads-up first to the committee chairperson dealing with that bill.)
“So much of what we do here is orchestrated,” Marr said. “Then you hit the unexpected, and it kind of grabs everyone’s attention.”
Leaders brought the bill up again later that day, and it was approved, 38-9, with Marr again one of the no votes. The bill passed.