OLYMPIA – Is it better to be incompetent or duplicitous?
That’s the choice being set up for Senate Democrats by initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman after last week’s double vote on suspending portions of a ballot measure requiring supermajorities for tax increases.
The proposed suspension wasn’t a surprise. Making some change to the voter-approved law restricting tax increases has been on the Democrats to-do list since the session began. There were questions of how and when they would try to change it, but never if.
By week’s end, Democrats looked like the gang that couldn’t legislate
straight, forcing a revote and giving Republicans extra time in front
of TVW cameras to hone campaign speeches.
Last week, as the 60-day session neared its halfway mark, the Senate
Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on a plan to suspend the
supermajority requirements for 16 months and permanently end some other
things, such as statewide advisory votes on increases, and declare that
ending tax exemptions wasn’t the same as raising taxes.
Watching the debate was like being stuck in “Groundhog’s Day”.
Democrats said it was needed to address the state’s worst economic
crisis since the Great Depression and take care of its most fragile
citizens; Republicans said a recession is a bad time to raise taxes and
changing an initiative is flouting the will of the people, who took the
law into their own hands by passing I-960 in 2007.
There was so much talk of “the will of the people” that a casual
observer might have assumed the people died, and we were stuck in
There were other points, and nuances to the arguments. But people
following the issue have heard them and those who don’t may be ready to
turn to Sports to read about the Zags. Time for Reader’s Digest version:
That bill passed the committee on a party-line vote, and went to the
Senate for a full debate the next afternoon. But before the debate, the
Democrats decided to swap it with a new plan. The reason, Majority
Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane later said, was that not enough Senate
Democrats supported the complicated plan, which has more fans in the
House. Senate Democrats wanted a simple suspension of all or parts of
Initiative 960 until mid 2011. They kicked around different ideas,
thought they settled on one, and ordered the staff to write it up.
Swapping bills was doable, but not automatic. Republicans had some
objections, they brought up several amendments Democrats voted down
(and one Democrats had to swallow because changes in the bill meant the
old title wasn’t accurate any more.) Eventually a bill passed 26-23
that set aside the two-thirds majority to raise taxes for the next 15
months. Bad, but could’ve been worse, Senate Republicans said as they
broke for the day; many provisions of I-960 survived.
That left reporters wondering: If the Legislature raises a bunch of
little taxes, would they go on the November ballot as one advisory
vote, or separate measures? The bill didn’t say. A call seeking an
answer gave Democratic leaders an “Uh oh” moment. The bill the staff
had drafted was too simple. Senators meant to suspend all of I-960
through June 2011. But that’s not what they voted on.
At this point, voters might wonder if legislators actually read bills
before voting. Brown said she read the first part of the new bill as it
was brought to the floor, and that part was right. Staff attorneys go
over them with a fine-tooth comb, she said, but in this case the
attorneys signed off on what the staff thought the caucus wanted, not
what it actually wanted.
“We could’ve, should’ve taken more time between the caucus and the floor action,” she said.
Egg on face, Democrats returned the next day with a new-new version, a
full suspension of I-960 for 16 months. Republicans got to thunder
again about ignoring the will of the people, cutting off their voices
by dropping advisory votes, gutting the transparency provisions…in the
dark of night, no less. Other than admitting they’d made a mistake that
had to be corrected, Democrats kept comments mercifully short, and the
final vote was over about 11:15 p.m.
“Same arguments, same result,” Brown said.
The next day, in a press release doubling as a fund-raising appeal,
Eyman floated a storyline that Democrats knew exactly what they passed
the first time, had a deal with Senate Republicans just to suspend the
two-thirds vote, but later reneged when Democrats in the House balked.
They were duplicitous, not incompetent, he insisted, citing unnamed
No way, said Brown. But, you might say, she’s a Democrat so that’s not definitive.
Brown’s right, and Eyman’s wrong, said Sen. Mark Schoesler,
R-Ritzville, the minority floor leader. There was no such deal, so
there was no reneging: “It was incompetence, pure and simple. You can
take that one to the bank.”
The press isn’t allowed into the caucus meetings (neither is Eyman) so
it’s hard to prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt. As for
reasonable doubt, consider: would any politicians come up with a plan
that made them look like they don’t know what they are doing? Probably