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Lawmakers Drown Sorrows Tax Cuts For Business Flow Freely As Session Stumbles To Close

Sat., March 9, 1996

Free food and booze from business lobbyists flowed in lawmakers’ offices just off the House and Senate floors.

A few legislators walked unsteadily to their desks to cast last-minute votes. Some broke out in song. Others, stone-cold sober, just shook their heads.

“I spoke to one member and had no idea what she was saying,” said House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee. “I don’t mind someone having a glass of wine. But I respect the decorum of this place. There are limits.”

So it went on Sine Die, the last night of a star-crossed legislative session marked by partisan bickering and lack of accomplishment.

The regular session didn’t end so much as collapse amid confusion just after midnight Friday.

Some lawmakers started partying by dinnertime Thursday, thinking the session was about to end. It didn’t. From blowups over the capital budget to entanglements over tax bills, the evening was anything but short and simple.

Lawmakers found ways to fill their time.

In a corner of the House floor, a small group of Seattle Democrats, including the only openly gay member of the House, began to sing.

To the tune of “Going to the Chapel, and We’re Going to Get Married,” they belted out “Going to Hawaii, and we’re going to get married.”

Conservative lawmakers were not amused. The song was a clear reference to an effort in Hawaii to legalize same-sex marriage - a proposal that triggered a failed attempt by some Republicans to outlaw same-sex marriage in Washington.

Just off the House and Senate floor, lobbyists worked every second for business tax breaks. In the end, more than $20 million in breaks passed, all for businesses.

Homeowners, promised a property tax cut, got nothing.

Most of the tax cuts were worked out in a meeting of the Senate Ways and Means Committee earlier in the day.

As the business tax breaks piled up Thursday night, Sen. Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, said with disgust, “I’m a little confused about what’s going on here. But then I’ve never been to a real orgy before.”

Before the evening session got under way, some lawmakers said they cautioned their colleagues to keep the noise down and lay off the booze.

“We basically said as long as these tax cuts are in play, let’s keep alert,” said Rep. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. Legislative leaders and most members stayed sober, Brown said.

But “some people clearly had too much,” said Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle. The partylike atmosphere added to the sense of chaos as the clock wound down. Cody summed up the evening in two words: “A zoo.”

When a bill came up for vote that no one had even read, Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, dug in her heels. “I think it’s important we understand what we are voting on,” she said.

Rep. Betty Sue Morris, D-Vancouver, voted no in protest on another bill. “This is the least professional law-crafting I have ever seen,” she said.

The House and Senate got so tangled up in a fight over spending on state trust lands and keeping the USS Missouri in Bremerton, the entire $55.6 million supplemental capital budget went down in flames.

Ballard sent his members home after midnight, not knowing the Senate was expecting to stick around for a special session to finish work.

“We have this amazing high-tech instrument called a telephone,” Ballard said icily. “No one called me.”

On Friday, there was plenty of blame passed around. But most of the rancor focused on tax cuts that each chamber blamed the other for not passing soon enough to beat the clock.

“We were just sitting over there. Hanging out. And there was work to be done,” said Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, the Senate minority leader.

In the end only one major break was adopted, an $8 million manufacturing sales and use tax exemption on replacement and repair parts, effective next January.

A handful of minor measures pushed the total tax cuts for the session, including a $132 million break in the business and occupation tax on services, to $152 million.

Gov. Mike Lowry considered calling a limited special session to salvage the supplemental capital budget, but decided against it Friday evening.

So the chaos of Sine Die stands.

“I wish I could describe what happened,” said Ballard. “I’ve been around here a long time and that was the doggonedest mess I’ve ever been in.

“It was as though we were drifting, like a ship with the throttle wide-open and someone took the rudder.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Last-minute deals The Legislature ended its session by approving a $17.6 billion budget, adding $200 million that had not been previously appropriated. Among the last-minute appropriations: $177 million for school technology, college enrollment, children’s services and other programs. $23 million for flood relief.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Last-minute deals The Legislature ended its session by approving a $17.6 billion budget, adding $200 million that had not been previously appropriated. Among the last-minute appropriations: $177 million for school technology, college enrollment, children’s services and other programs. $23 million for flood relief.


 

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