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Republicans Promise Open Legislature Legislative Battle Brewing Over Welfare Reform

Republicans raised the curtain Monday on what they promised will be a leaner, more open state government.

In the House of Representatives, the gavel was handed to the first Republican speaker in more than a decade. Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee, immediately called for sweeping reform.

“No longer will we allow last-minute legislation to be jammed through the process with little or no public scrutiny,” Ballard said. “And we insist that all conference committees be open to the public and the media.”

Ballard was cheered by both Republicans and Democrats for his promise to open up conference committees, where the final deals on most important legislation is cut.

But state senators didn’t jump on board, and may prove an obstacle to reform when House and Senate leaders hammer out joint rules later this week.

“I wouldn’t think a joint rule should be changed with a unilateral declaration,” Sen. Majority Leader Marcus Gaspard, D-Puyallup, said stiffly.

“Many of my members are concerned that we are, after all, a citizen Legislature, limited to a 105-day session, and opening these meetings will definitely slow things down.

“On the one hand we are criticized for closed meetings, then on the other hand we are criticized if we don’t finish in 105 days.”

Gaspard is likely to seek a compromise, in which only part of the conference committee process is opened up, such as the signing of the conference report.

That would still allow all negotiations to be conducted in secret, a practice that sets Washington apart: Most states require conference committees to operate in the open.

The joint House and Senate rules represent just one of many clashes ahead.

There is little agreement between the two houses, or the two political parties, on most of the Contract with Washington State pushed by the GOP.

Welfare reform has emerged as a flash point, with the House GOP calling for reforms some leading Democrats have already branded as “Draconian.”

The proposal, offered by Rep. Suzette Cooke, R-Kent, chairwoman of the House Child and Family Services Committee, would limit welfare recipients to two years of benefits.

Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, called the plan “extremist.”

“This bill can’t be a serious proposal,” Sommers said. “It certainly isn’t well thought-out.”

Sommers said it could sever benefits for 50,000 adult welfare recipients and nearly 100,000 children.

Cooke said it’s time for the private sector, meaning charities, to take care of people if they refuse to take care of themselves after two years on the dole.

“And if welfare recipients can’t be responsible for their children they may have to give them up. I think that could be a powerful incentive for many people to straighten out their lives.”

The bill would also stop the practice of increasing welfare grants when additional children are born to welfare recipients - something Gov. Mike Lowry is dead-set against.

“He doesn’t want children punished,” said Anne Fennessy, spokeswoman for Lowry.

Cooke said her proposal would leave room for genuine hard luck, and would not be “life-threatening.”

Benefits would not be cut off at two years if there were good reasons to make an exception, such as illness, Cooke said. And while grants wouldn’t be increased for having more kids, medical benefits and food stamps would be.

Cooke maintained welfare reform would help families, not hurt them.

“Our present system isolates people and perpetuates their identity as victims. We don’t want that.”

Despite the discussions of welfare and committee rules, most of the Legislature’s opening day was spent in festivities and ceremony.

Legislators were feted with a brass band and receptions, and family and friends cheered them from the House and Senate galleries as flashbulbs popped.

“It’s a great day,” said Duane Sommers, chairman of the Spokane County chapter of the GOP, who drove across the state with his wife to watch a bumper crop of new Republicans take the oath of office, and see the transfer of the speaker’s gavel to the GOP.

“I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.”