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Spin Control

Sat., Feb. 13, 2010, 6:22 p.m.

WA Lege: A goof or an evil plot?

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 probate court.
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 sources.
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 not.

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.