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Sat., March 31, 2012, 6:09 p.m.

Sunday Spin: The bill-signing dam breaks

OLYMPIA – In the list of threats a Washington governor can hurl at a recalcitrant Legislature, “I won’t sign your bills” has proven to be among the least menacing.
Gov. Chris Gregoire kept threatening not to sign bills if the Legislature didn’t cough up a General Fund budget that left the state in the black at the end of this fiscal biennium. If any legislators quaked in their boots, they did it from afar, where they have spent most of the special session. It did not register here on the political Richter scale.
The reason for that is basic civics. . .

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. . . In some states, a bill that is not signed by a certain deadline is dead. It’s called a “pocket veto,” probably from the days of smoke-filled rooms when a governor (or president) could shove offensive legislation in his vest or coat pocket, mixing it with other papers, news clippings, walking around money, gambling markers, a flask and a few cigars, keeping it out of sight and mind until it expired on its own.
A close look at Gregoire’s standard attire – Spin Control did an exhaustive review of photos taken at months of press conferences – reveals that current gubernatorial garb suffers from the problem of most women’s business couture. It either has no pockets or has them so small that one might carry a smart phone or a small tin of breath mints. But not both.
This is OK, because Washington has no pocket veto law. Instead, a bill becomes law without the governor’s signature after a set time. It only dies if the governor actively vetoes it.
The governor’s threat, then, did not imperil any legislation that she didn’t actively dislike. Instead, it cut into the ceremonial part of legislating, when the sponsors of a bill, the supporters from various sectors of the body politic and their lobbyists stand behind her in the large conference room while the governor signs the front sheet of the official bill form. After posing for a photo – legislative photographers swear Gregoire has never blinked for these shots, not once in almost eight years – she then hands the signing pen, imprinted with her name, to a sponsor or someone instrumental in its passage, and hands out duplicate pens from a small tray nearby to everyone who wants one. (On rare occasions, a guest has grabbed a second pen, but that’s considered loutish.) The supporters of that bill then file out of the conference room, and supporters of the next bill file in.
The chance to grip and grin with a governor in celebration of one’s legislation is coveted by many legislators, regardless of party. There were some grumblings from a few members about “holding bills hostage” but that was silly.
What she was holding hostage were the ceremonies, not the legislation. And the people involved in budget negotiations tended to be people who had already attended their fair share of signings, and probably have desk drawers full of official pens. They uttered not a peep.
As Saturday approached, the day when bills would become law, she relented, said sufficient budget progress was being made and began signing bills. She had to add a caveat to that description of sufficient budget progress. It could all come together in 48 hours. Or it could all fall apart.
That meant signing about 177 bills over the course of two days, which may be a record, and could be a cause for OSHA to study whether it’s precedent to repetitive strain injury.

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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